'The Railway Man' review: Needs to get back to work

'The Railway Man'

'The Railway Man' (April 14, 2014)

**1/2 (out of four)

When self-described “railway enthusiast” Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a European train, the chemistry instantly sizzles, “Before Sunrise”-style. They bond over transportation and traveling. She almost immediately gets him to shave his mustache, holding her kisses hostage until he obliges.

What the former nurse can’t get the man she soon marries to do, however, is open up about a traumatic past that sparks terrified visions and violent outbursts. In extended flashback sequences, “The Railway Man” shifts to the Far East in the early ‘40s, when a younger Eric (Jeremy Irvine of “War Horse”) and his fellow English soldiers become WWII POWs and are forced to work on a railway between Thailand and what then was Burma. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the film, based on Lomax’s book of the same name, is based on a true story. Director Jonathan Teplitzky renders wartime footage with reasonable credibility, showcasing the torture that made broken men out of leaders and lingered in Eric’s mind for decades without shoving our faces in agony.

Unfortunately, as often is common with stories like this, “The Railway Man” makes note only of the suffering endured by white faces—despite the participation and death of thousands of Asian railway workers. The film cares more about jumping between Eric’s difficult past and the present, when he shuts out his wife (who mostly disappears from the movie) and discovers that his tormentor, who once insisted “You will be killed shortly,” still is alive. This leads to a relatively standard tracking down of a war criminal destined to be completely regretful or resolutely evil—a thread seen in several films, including “X-Men: First Class”—and a discussion of forgiveness that softens the involuntary memories the film spends so much time explaining.

“The Railway Man” wonders what to do with trauma, and the cast does fine work. But the film struggles to account for the years between then and now. In attempting to suggest a complicated road to recovery, it winds up treating scar tissue as something that ultimately can be packed into a balloon and sent floating away. If only.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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