MRR Review: "The Railway Man"

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A victim from World War II's "Death Railway" sets out to find those responsible for his torture. Based on the true story that's detailed in Eric Lomax's autobiography, this 2013 war drama is directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and stars Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman & Stellan Skarsgård.
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Rating: R
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: April 11, 2014
Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky
Genre: Biography / Drama

War movies are plentiful in the annals of film history. For various reasons, out of all genres and sub-genres, war movies also have a higher than average ratio of good to bad. There is something about the gravity of real life subject matter and unimaginable horrors that lead filmmakers to treat this type of material with the utmost respect and care. Within the broader category of war movies is the World War II picture.

This colossal world event is still in living memory. With almost the entire globe involved and literally billions of people directly affected by it, it is no surprise that the Second World War has inspired an extensive range of cinematic stories. Some films about that war tell sweeping tales about common knowledge historical events such as Pearl Harbor, while others take on lesser known stories about individual lives that were forever changed. "The Railway Man" falls into the latter category.

Starring two of the biggest screen celebrities in the world, "The Railway Man" is based on an incredible true story that resonates with the fallout of war and the way that events can reverberate throughout the decades of an entire life.

When Eric Lomax joins the British Army, the war is yet to start. However, when the largest, costliest and most deadly war in world history begins, Lomax is put into service as a lieutenant, and serves in the war's South-East Asian theater. Following the Battle of Singapore, Lomax becomes one of the many prisoners of war and spends the next several years in forced labor working on the Burma Railway.

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" is a classic movie dramatizing the conditions that laborers endured on the notorious project, but "The Railway Man" has a main focus apart from those years. Unlike many of his fellow captives, Lomax survives the ordeal and is liberated. The crux of the engrossing story at the heart of "The Railroad Man" is not Lomax's time as a prisoner but the effects it has years later as the former POW begins a new romance with a woman who knows little about his past.

Colin Firth, in top form here, plays the older Eric Lomax, who in the 1980s is still struggling to come to terms with events that occurred over four decades earlier. The editing jumps around in time as scenes with the younger Lomax, played by Peter Irvine, cut jaggedly into scenes from the veteran's present life. The editing of "The Railway Man" is extremely important to the emotional thrust of the film. The cuts and the fluid timeline portray a very potent sense of trauma that still feels fresh and invasive.

However, it is Lomax's paramour and later wife Patti who provides a good deal of the movie's sentimental ballast. It can be easy to forget that underneath Nicole Kidman's blinding star power is a fantastic acting talent, but the actress's formidable skills are more than apparent in "The Railway Man." Patti is an experienced nurse, but she has trouble knowing just how to help Eric as his post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself in intense ways.

Most of the flashback sequences occur as Patti learns the disturbing details of just what her husband endured. Lomax underwent brutal punishment at the hands of his captors for secretly building a radio, and one Japanese officer was especially vicious. As Patti helps Lomax track down the long-retired officer, the movie takes an unexpected turn inspired by the inspiring and heartening real life story.

The strong acting services this movie well, and the directing manages to evoke just the right tone, which is respectful without being staid and arresting without being flashy. However, it is the amazing story that gives this film so much of its power.

Ultimately, "The Railway Man" is a war film. However, it does not target the horrors and brutality of war like so many other films in that genre. "The Railway Man" is a movie about big themes like forgiveness, redemption and the power of human relationships. While many movies in a number of genres attempt to incorporate these timeless themes, "The Railway Man" is more successful than most.

"The Railway Man" is already a beloved book, and the story is well-known. In cases like these, it can be difficult to live up to the expectations of the audience with a movie adaptation. Fortunately, "The Railway Man" is a terrific film adaptation of the literary material, serving as a suitably respectful and well-made movie in its own right.