Based on the best-selling autobiography by Eric Lomax, director Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man" recounts the harrowing experiences of its subject as a Japanese prisoner of war; his slave labor on the Thai-Burma Railway (the basis for David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai"); his inhumane treatment at the hands of his captors; and his postwar struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. The cinematography by Garry Phillips is superb; the performance by Nicole Kidman as Lomax's wife is understated and remarkable; Colin Firth, in the lead, is his usual solid self, igniting the anguish of his character for maximum thrust and elevation.
So why does the movie leave one cold? The early moments don't: The general despair of Lomax, his friendship with fellow vet Finlay (the stellar Stellan Skarsgard), his joy at love in bloom with Patti (Kidman), his subsequent mental disorder caused by memory and dreams, are all genuine and emotionally engaging. Phillips' pictures and David Hirschfelder's music only enhance the mix.
The heart of the story, however, is Lomax's confrontation with his chief tormentor, Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida during the war, Hiroyuki Sanada after), who, as the prison interpreter, inflicted his own punishments on soldiers who were already abused. When Lomax discovers that Nagase is still alive, he decides he must travel to Thailand and confront his nemesis. Where the film falls apart is in this vengeance scenario, which imparts a sense of neither catharsis nor, certainly, victory. While it may have been good for the real-life Lomax, it erodes whatever nobility Lomax has accrued over the course of the film and leaves viewers of "The Railway Man" feeling a bit conflicted: Lomax should have stayed home with Patti, maybe, even if it took the medical establishment another 20 years to figure out PTSD.
PLOT Traumatized as a POW, an Englishman confronts his demons, imagined and real.
RATED R (images of violence and torture)
CAST Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgard.
BOTTOM LINE Well-made, dramatically inert.