It’s easier to like “The Railway Man” than it is to love it. Despite solid performances by Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard, and a handsome cinematic sheen burnishing the shocking, true-life tale of wartime torture and reconciliation, the film is less deeply affecting than merely admirable. It’s a good, slick and well-intentioned film that wants so hard to be an important one that the slight feeling of letdown it leaves is magnified.
Based on a 1995 memoir by Englishman Eric Lomax — who as a World War II soldier in the Far East was captured and brutalized by the Japanese army — the film jumps back and forth between Lomax’s shellshocked veteran circa 1980 (a nerdy looking Firth) and his much younger wartime self (portrayed with earnest appeal by Jeremy Irvine).
The scenes in the Thai POW camp, where Lomax and his comrades are forced to build the same railroad featured in the fictional film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” are actually pretty gripping. That’s largely because they’re characterized by scenes of Lomax being tortured after confessing to building a contraband radio. As for the abuse Lomax suffers, it includes a harrowing precursor to waterboarding and bludgeonings so bone-crunchingly severe it’s a wonder he survived without limbs as mangled as his psyche.
For this pain, Lomax blames Japanese interpreter Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), a young man who is shown to be, at best, a complicit witness to Lomax’s torment and, at worst, an active instigator.
One notable shot shows Nagase’s face as some ambiguous emotion — possibly guilt, possibly fear — flashes across it.
These flashbacks are more compelling than the action set years later, back in England, where a middle-age Lomax seems to have turned into something of a damaged savant, obsessed with train schedules and jumping at the word “boo.” His wife (Kidman) calls him a “mess,” but Lomax’s condition betrays all the tidy symptoms of a Major Motion Picture Malady. There’s an actorly quality to the night terrors that looks more like showboating than like PTSD.
Lomax’s ex-POW pal Finlay (Skarsgard) seems to have more of a stiff upper lip and has adapted better to civilian life. That doesn’t give Skarsgard much to do until his character meets a sudden, perplexingly tragic fate. That plot development, which isn’t in Lomax’s book, comes out of nowhere.
For her part, Kidman’s character exists mainly to galvanize her husband into finally addressing his demons. In this case, that means tracking down the middle-aged Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). While extreme, that’s something Lomax actually did.
Once they confront each other, the film ought to kick into high payoff mode, delivering the emotional punch we’ve been conditioned to expect from similar films. Whether that payoff is one of vengeance or forgiveness doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the emotional transaction is raw and honest.
In the end, Firth’s Lomax is less messy than safe. The ever-so-slightly hammy climax of “The Railway Man” feels true enough. But it also comes across as slightly overdone, like a dish you know is good for you but has lost some of its flavor in the cooking.
R. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. Contains images of violence and torture. 108 minutes.