The concept of manly grief leads into so many dark areas and cultural expectations—questions about how men are expected to bury their trauma long after the traumatizing event. Or else, how men are expected to examine it, reckon with it emotionally, when everything in their upbringing tells them to keep it in.
In The Railway Man, which has many problems but also has Colin Firth, the story belongs to Eric Lomax. Lomax’s memoir gave this half-good, half-fraudulent film adaptation its title.
The former signals engineer and lifelong train enthusiast made it to age 93, long enough to visit the set of the film mid-production. Following the 1942 British surrender in Singapore to the Japanese, Lomax was relocated to Thailand, where alongside his fellow prisoners of war he was put to back-breaking work in the construction of the Burma Railway. When his captors discovered the homemade radio receiver Lomax built on the sly, the Scottish-born prisoner was subjected to near-fatal torture, including what Americans know as waterboarding.
An interpreter, Takashi Nagase, worked with the Japanese military, questioning and torturing Lomax. Years after the war, Lomax dreamed of exacting revenge on his enemies and on this man. In the postwar era, Nagase worked as an interpreter for the Allies. He wrote a book, Crosses and Tigers, about his experiences in the war, including the brutal interrogation of a man whom Lomax, reading the account years later, recognized as himself.
The miracle is simple: The men eventually met and became friends. Lomax’s story has been dramatized before, in a British teleplay, starring John Hurt, and in the documentary Enemy, My Friend? The building of the Burma Railway was most famously dealt with in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Where, and how, does The Railway Man fit into the rest of the stories?
It’s more of a home-front war story, focusing on the strain Lomax’s marriage underwent because of everything in his wartime past. Screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce invents plenty and cooks up scenes, decades after the war, where an aging Lomax confronts, interrogates and threatens to kill the apparently repentant Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). The film begins in 1980 with the meeting of Lomax and his second wife-to-be, Patti, played by Nicole Kidman. The Railway Man is about the rehabilitation of a broken man, largely through the persistence and the efforts of his wife, intent on unlocking the anguished riddle before her.
Firth is marvelous throughout, and in the wartime sequences, Lomax in his 20s is played well and truly by a shrewdly matched Jeremy Irvine. The story gets to you on various levels, even though director Jonathan Teplitzky shoots it all very conventionally, matching the script’s facile, hoked-up air with a clean-scrubbed visual touch. (Also the musical score’s terrible.)
Even when the film’s cheating, Firth refuses to tidy up the fictionalized Lomax’s emotional state. The actor, so good at playing stalwart men contending with inner demons, can utter a simple line—“I don’t think I can be put back together”—and break your heart, legitimately, without histrionics. He’s far more effective and convincing than the film overall, but Firth and co-stars Kidman, Sanada and Stellan Skarsgard (as a fellow POW survivor) keep their heads down and see it through.