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Hiroyuki Sanada (left) and Colin Firth face off in "The Railway Man," now playing.

"The Railway Man" rides strong story, performances to success


Attaching the phrase "based on a true story" to a film's marketing has lost much of its meaning over the years. Most audiences are savvy – or cynical – enough to know most "inspired by real events" movies are a generous 50:50 blend of reality and Hollywood's imposed formulas.

The incredible true story of the late Eric Lomax, however, is worthy of celebration without requiring much Hollywood embellishment. It's already a tale of unfathomable survival, bravery, strength and, in the end, humanity that could put most of this summer's superheroes to shame. It's an impossibly powerful story, as well as an almost impossible one to waste on screen. Luckily, "The Railway Man" does it justice, even through a coat of the Weinstein Company's patented prestige lacquer.

The audience first meets Eric as a middle-aged, quiet and lonely WWII veteran, played by the predictably solid Colin Firth. On a cross-country train trip, however, he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), a former WWII nurse herself who becomes charmed by his slightly frazzled demeanor and almost cute encyclopedia-like obsession with railways. The two fall in love – much to the surprise of Eric's fellow veteran lunch mates, namely his best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) – and eventually get married.

Soon after the honeymoon, however, Eric's once merely frazzled behavior becomes dangerously, unnervingly erratic. He stops paying attention to his new wife, becomes controlling about their home and violently lashes out against debt collectors. Once merely a quirk, his obsession with trains is now obviously a coping mechanism for his memories of WWII, memories that often strike Eric as sweaty, terror-inducing hallucinations. Even as his behavior gets worse though, he refuses to discuss his past traumas with an increasingly disturbed Patti.

She eventually finds out the truth about Eric's WWII service as a young British officer (played by Jeremy Irvine of "War Horse"), a tour in the Pacific theater that involved being taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, being forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway – essentially a suicide mission – and eventually stomaching relentless torture after being caught with a makeshift radio.

The events have left Eric permanently bruised and emotionally crippled, as well as the rest of his troop. At one point, Finlay refers to them as "an army of ghosts." In a twist of fate, however, Eric discovers his main torturer (played as an adult by Hiroyuki Sanada of "The Wolverine") is still alive, running a museum at the old work camp. At the desperate behooving of Patti and Finlay, Eric goes to Japan to confront his old nemesis – and possibly get revenge and bloody closure.

Unknown director Jonathan Teplitzky (his most popular work is probably two episodes of FOX's "Rake") has a fairly undistinguished style, but he gets great performances from his Oscar-winning key cast members. Firth's resume is filled with characters whose gentlemanly poise and easy charm cloaks a shaken psyche ("A Single Man," "The King's Speech").

Lomax is yet another one, but Firth still makes his journey both magnetic and moving. He's enjoyably charming in his meet-cute with Kidman's Patti, but that charm soon drains away, replaced by someone isolated and slightly menacing as he ventures to Japan. He's both motivated by his goal and uncertain in his ability to do it, making him intriguingly unpredictable.

As the younger Eric, burgeoning star Irvine certainly holds his own with Firth, staying strong on the outside in the face of horrific treatment but emotionally crumbling inside. A return home that suddenly reveals itself to be merely a hallucinated escape as acted by Irvine – and presented by Teplitzky and his writers Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce in a brief inspired moment – is both heartbreaking and spine-chilling.

Kidman has the smallest and most rote of the three leads, but she makes a strong impact as well. Known mostly for her chilly demeanor and seemingly frozen facial expressions, the Oscar winner radiates warmth and humanity. In her first meetings and dates with Firth, she nicely matches her screen partner's easy charm with equally easy, sweet flirtiness. As her husband breaks down before her eyes, her concern is deeply felt.

Even if you missed the opening credits, you'd likely be able to pick "The Railway Man" as a Weinstein Company production. The studio is a prestige film factory, often following a particular filmmaking style and formula to success, no matter how homogenized the results can end up (see last year's "Emperor").

The template usually includes an inherently dark historical story with a reaffirming, heavily emphasized message in the end, a romance to water things down a bit and direction that, at its most interesting, could be best described as respectful or workmanlike.

All of these elements can certainly be found in "The Railway Man," but the performances and the story are too powerful to be neatly reined in by the template. The grim darkness and ugliness of Eric Lomax's experience still hang over the film, and its emotional conflict leads to some harrowing tension, like during the climactic confrontation between Lomax and his former torturer in the museum, with photos of the young Japanese officers haunting the scene like the past itself.

How does their face-off end? I won't say here (though Lomax's story has been widely published and reported, so it's not exactly hard to find); it's something better felt and experienced than simply read – especially as performed by Firth and Sanada. Without spoiling too much, however, it's incredibly poignant (I'll admit to welling up a bit, even with some voiceover peskily nudging the message home) and a beautiful tribute to a triumph of humanity and true emotional heroism.

It may not be the most impressively told drama, but "The Railway Man" – with a lot of support from its strong performances – tells an impressive, moving story nevertheless.



Theaters and showtimes for The Railway Man
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Talkbacks

High_Life_Man | April 28, 2014 at 2:17 a.m. (report)

I thought it was an excellent film. I'm not sure why so many reviews have been mediocre. It reminded me a bit of "Five Minutes of Heaven."

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