The Railway Man takes its title and plot elements from Eric Lomax's autobiographical book about his tragic involvement in one of WWII's more brutal chapters: the construction of the Burma Railroad (also known as the Death Railroad) by the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942-43 using pressed labor from Asia and Allied POWs.
That monstrous project, later accounted a war crime, was also the subject of David Lean's POW epic The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957.
Lean's classic is something of a picnic compared to The Railway Man, which contains horrific scenes of torture.
The story takes place in two time frames. Colin Firth plays the older Lomax in the '80s as a somewhat dotty and fussy railway enthusiast. ("Not a trainspotter!" he takes pains to point out.) He meets and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), a former nurse who can't get through the honeymoon before discovering her husband is deeply disturbed.
Why? We find out in the flashbacks to 1942, where a boyish Lomax (War Horse's Jeremy Irvine) is captured in the Fall of Singapore and eventually handed over to the Kempeitai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo.
The alternating story line is frustrating for half of the film, because the wartime scenes are far more powerful visually and dramatically. The modern events seem dry and torpid by comparison.
Rather late in the game, the rationale for the unbalanced structure emerges, as Lomax's army buddy (Stellan Skarsgard as an old man; Sam Reid in the camps) informs him one of his worst tormentors (Hiroyuki Sanada in the present; Tanroh Ishida as a soldier) is still alive.
Here the script, in the service of suspense, takes some rather bold liberties with actual events, but it pays off sensationally, if briefly.
Beautifully acted, The Railway Man is profoundly moving, and yet, somehow, its sentimental ending manages to be both unearned and predictable.
The Railway Man *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. With Colin Firth, Jeremy Irvine, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 mins.
Parent's guide: R (graphic torture scenes).
Showing at: Ritz Five and Ritz Voorhees. EndText