Prisoner of the Past: Colin Firth Stars in ‘The Railway Man’

The harrowing true story of a British soldier who lived to confront his torturer—40 years later

Colin Firth stars in The Railway Man?.

Colin Firth in The Railway Man.

Wrenching, profound and beautifully made, The Railway Man is one of the stunning don’t-miss surprises of the still-young 2014, teaming two of the screen’s most popular stars, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, in a heartbreaking footnote to World War II that is certain to touch and humble all but the hardest and most jaded of hearts. A remarkable film in every way, it relates the true story of Eric Lomax, a British soldier captured by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore in 1942 and treated as slave labor in the construction of the notorious “death railway” from Thailand to Burma, who somehow miraculously survived to confront his torturer 40 years later. It’s an inspiring and unforgettable story about cruelty, endurance, courage and making peace with the past.

The Railway Man ★★★★
(4/4 stars)

Written by: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson
Directed by:
Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgård
Running time: 116 min.

Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky has adapted the traumatic events related in Mr. Lomax’s best-selling memoir and ushered them onto the screen with enough power and credibility to reduce viewers to tears and then bring them to a cheering standing ovation at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. How gratifying that it is now expanded for a wider audience to experience. It has the same traumatic emotional impact as 12 Years a Slave, but the historic time frame is so much closer to life today that in many ways it’s even more accessible.

Folding time frames with gentle ease, the movie begins in the 1980s with a chance encounter on a train to Scotland that leads to a sudden impulsive romance between Patti, a pretty nurse (Ms. Kidman), and Lomax (Mr. Firth), a suave, restrained railway enthusiast who once worked as a signals engineer and never lost his love for trains, despite what happened to him as a P.O.W. When she marries Eric, she knows the recurring nightmares that begin on their wedding night are the result of the horrors of the past, but even her medical training fails to prepare Patti for how deeply haunted her new husband still is. Eric is so conflicted that his old prison uniform still hangs in his closet, and he is driven by an unabated obsession for revenge against Nagase, a young translator in the Japanese Imperial Army who acted as a fierce interrogator. (Nagase is played with hair-raising authority by a devastatingly versatile and thorough Tanroh Ishida, who does for this film what novice Somali actor Barkhad Abdi did for Captain Phillips.) 

Turning for advice to another P.O.W. (Stellan Skarsgård) who runs a support group at a veterans club dedicated to putting broken lives back together, Patti finally learns about what happened in 1942 during the months of backbreaking labor in the jungles and the deaths of hundreds of fellow soldiers, when Eric was imprisoned for constructing a forbidden radio from spare parts to listen to war news from the BBC and forced to endure unspeakable atrocities by the Japanese who demanded a confession. In the painful torture sequences, Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine, the skillful young star of War Horse and the recent revival of Great Expectations, who gives his all as a perfect younger vision of Colin Firth.

While Patti dedicates herself to building a viable future, the chance for Eric’s redemption arrives when the whereabouts of the Japanese officer who nearly killed him is located—now a humble brewer who escaped punishment for war crimes and conducts guided tours of the old railroad internment camp, now a war museum. Eric travels all the way back to seek justice and confront the man who destroyed his life. But when he finally comes face to face with the aging Nagase (sturdy work by Hiroyuki Sanada), the old man has changed with time. He now works for reconciliation, teaching the tragedies of war to a new generation. He does not think of himself as a war criminal. Now that the murder weapons are in the hands of the victim, the rules have changed too, and the game doesn’t play the same way. On Eric’s second trip, Patti goes with him. Both sides have suffered, and neither side feels the same way. What they learn provides The Railway Man with its most memorable scene. Total forgiveness may never be possible, but the healing power of compassion is a good place to start.    

It’s a compelling story, hard as it is to believe, which is why it makes such an astonishing movie. Bringing Lomax’s autobiography to the screen, director Teplitsky mines from a harrowing narrative the moral fiber it deserves, without the inherent sentimentality. Mr. Firth gives his best, richest and most carefully calibrated performance since The King’s Speech, with warm, understated support from Ms. Kidman in the kind of mostly thankless stand-by-your-man role June Allyson used to play. What a desperately needed antidote to the ghastly war films of Kathryn Bigelow. Lomax continued to correspond with Nagase until their deaths in the past 10 years. Lomax died in 2012, while The Railway Man was in the editing room. He was 93 years old. Sadly, he never saw the finished product, but I think it is a work of noble, poignant and lasting value that would have made him proud.

Prisoner of the Past: Colin Firth Stars in ‘The Railway Man’