Let’s say you were busy getting settled in your seat during the opening moments of The Railway Man, in which Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is lying on the floor, muttering some eerie rhyme to himself. This would mean that, for you, the film would begin, more or less, with Eric meeting Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train. It’s all rather comforting at this point: the Technicolor tones of the cinematography, the two attractive stars sharing a table as the landscape passes between them, swapping travel routes as a way of making love. How old-fashioned! There’s even mention of Brief Encounter. Firth almost looks like Robert Donat in that moustache. Perhaps the rail-riding lovers-in-waiting are playing a variation on North by Northwest. Though the truth is that Eric is far too tormented to be Cary Grant, and Patti, a nurse, will come to more closely resemble Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, the single-minded woman determined to heal her damaged man. But Bergman had a personality and authority. She liked liverwurst. And she was in a movie that, however artificial, even silly, had gravitas. All The Railway Man has is gravity, and that gravity comes entirely from the source material, not from this awkwardly structured, numbingly somber piece of prestige cinema.
My reservations are in no way meant to make light of the suffering of the real Eric Lomax, an engineer who served the British Army in the war, was taken prisoner and tortured, and who never recovered his psychic health until his spouse made his recovery her mission, and until Lomax went back to Southeast Asia to confront his chief tormentor and, amazingly, wound up becoming his tormentor’s friend. That last part, the confrontation that turned into reconciliation that turned into camaraderie, deserves a smart, lucid, searching movie, yet this entire development, the most extraordinary chapter in an extraordinary story, is barely even touched on here. It’s all but reduced to a closing title card.
At first it seems like Patti might be out protagonist. While tight-lipped Eric is going semi-catatonic or lunging at strangers with a box-cutter, Patti is relentlessly questioning Eric’s wartime buddy (Stellan Skarsgård) about what really happened. “Wherever there’s been a war there are nurses like me to put people back together,” she declares. We know Patti’s something of a bossy pants from the very start of their romance—right after their first kiss she’s already giving Eric the moustache ultimatum. But whatever promise Patti had of turning into a real and active character quickly dissolves under the film’s poorly handled flashbacks, which are spread out as evenly and indiscriminately as David Hirschfelder’s overly busy, obtrusive score. Why is Kidman even in this thing? Firth at least gets to flail and be agonized, though the character’s lack of texture and the film’s lack of curiosity does no favours to Firth or anyone else. Lomax died in 2012, but his memoir is still in print.