For every actor that makes it his mission to star in only the biggest, most spectacle-fueled movies he can before it burns him into oblivion, there is an actor who sets his sights on smaller, more lavishly breathtaking and subtlety emotional films that give him a chance to thrive and truly perform. One of those actors is Colin Firth, who doesn’t shy away from the occasional fun piece of Hollywood shlock (see: Bridget Jones’s Diary and Mamma Mia!), but always tends to gravitate back to the smaller films that may or may not ever see the light of day in a cinema outside of prestigious film festivals. But since he’s been able to craft such a delicate body of work because of this, including his new intimately heartbreaking film, The Railway Man, it’s hard to want him to ever give it up.
Based on true events, The Railway Man centers on Eric (Firth), a man living with a debilitating case of PTSD from his time being tortured as a Japanese prisoner in World War II. The pain of his experiences are showcased in both the simple acts he does to distance himself from his memories (as when he unplugs a radio and removes it from his house when a song is played that sparks his memory) to dropping to the floor in horrifying screams of panic or repeating a nursery rhyme to calm himself down. When he meets and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), it becomes clear that he must confront his captor (Hiroyaki Sanada) face-to-face and do whatever is necessary to help end his pain.
The film jumps back and forth from the “present” day to World War II, where we quickly learn that Eric and his unit have been captured by the Japanese to work on the Thai/Burma railway. When the Japanese find out that Eric and his friends have built a radio they believe they’re using to contact their allies, Eric steps forward as the sole perpetrator in an effort to protect his friends, leading to a series of scenes in which he is tortured and beaten for information… scenes that no doubt prove what the older version of one of Eric’s friends (Stellan Skarsgaard) tells Patti — “It was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen a man do.”
The “present” day sequences are built in a more saturated tone, both in the color palette to the atmosphere of the performances. Firth is intensely quiet, using his body to project the fear and hatred he holds onto, as well as the demons that haunt his dreams. Everything emits a sense of how lonely Eric is, despite all of the friends and the love of his life who are constantly trying to open him back up and live again.
But no matter how good Firth is (and on a lesser scale Sanada), their younger counterparts (Jeremy Irvine and Tanroh Ishida, respectively) are just as good, if not better because of the kinetic energy they bring to their roles. Their youth, as well as the brightness and intensity of the color palette and tone of the flashbacks, may be a contributing factors, but these two men have a certain connection that seems to be lost on the older versions. So much so that whenever we left the scenes of World War II to return to the “present,” I felt I was being ripped away from the real movie — the emotional heart of the story.
It’s because of their performances that the interrogations and scenes of torture are so hard to watch, but at the same time extremely powerful. I felt so connected to these two men because of the magnetism they shared with one another, it was hard to do the same for the elders. Firth and Sanada’s screen time is much less than that of Irvine and Ishida, but that shouldn’t have any significance to the chemistry that they deliver. Even though the awkwardness and insecurities between the men are quite affecting, based on the interactions and the emotional journey’s the young men were forced to travel, I wanted so much more from the sober interactions between Firth and Sonada. Watching Firth try so desperately to control his emotions and figure out how far he’s willing to go to seek revenge and find peace is heartbreaking, but to have more power between the two would have made it even that much more harrowing.
If there was one major flaw to the film, it would have to be Nicole Kidman. She and Firth display decent chemistry during their meet-cute on a train (as Firth speaks of traveling the rails like a southern Californian talks about the freeway system), but that attraction slowly dwindles as Kidman becomes more sullen and fearful of her husband. I’m not sure what it was, but the more she was on screen, the more her energy dissipated. We’re supposed to believe that these two people fell deeply in love with one another — lifelong soul mates — but I’m not sure I felt that. Kidman herself isn’t terrible, and perhaps part of it has to do with her lack of character arc, but she didn’t help add any real tension to the film.
There are also a few moments that drag a little, and the way they edited the film felt a bit jagged (I was hoping for more of a buildup into what actually happened in the war, rather than being told pieces of it throughout), but with very strong performances from Firth, Sonada, Irvine and Ishida, the film stings you with empathy for the travesty that took place and the effects it had on two men — one brave enough to stand up for his friends and fellow soldiers, the other cowardly in his inability to go against the authoritative voice and listen to his heart.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Maleficent and A Million Ways To Die In the West. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.