Does a film get a free pass if it’s portraying a historical tragedy? Some people seem to think so, for the tragedy itself is what sticks in people’s minds, not the portrayal itself. And The Railway Man does a good job of letting people know of a particular tragedy that happened in World War II, a tragedy that I myself as a historical layperson wasn’t aware of. But does that excuse the film for a largely dull depiction? After all, the point of narrative cinema is generally to entertain, not to educate. I think The Railway Man misses the mark on that front, and that makes what should be a story worth paying attention to into a lecture on why Japanese imperialism was bad.
Eric Lomax, played by Colin Firth, was a prisoner of war in Southeast Asia, forced by the Japanese to help construct a railroad in terrain where men were enslaved until their inevitable death by exhaustion. In the 1970s, Lomax attempts to establish a happy life for himself, marrying a woman he met on a train, but ultimately distances himself from her as PTSD starts to consume him. The first half of the film focuses on Lomax’s wife, played by Nicole Kidman, who investigates the events that led to Lomax’s breakdown, and the second half focuses on Lomax’s confrontation with one of his former captors, a Japanese interpreter. The main story arc is about Lomax’s self-healing after years of bottled hatred, but it would be understandable why that could be lost on a casual viewer watching the film.
When the main set-piece conversations take place, the film flashes back to the events that led to Lomax’s torture at the hands of the Japanese. However, when it does so, the events portrayed don’t so much show us examples of Japanese brutality as just tell us that they're there. Eventually we see Japanese soldiers mistreat the British prisoners, but it ends up feeling token after the film does such a poor job establishing their villainy. Furthermore, none of the characters in the flashback scenes have enough established personality to make them memorable or empathetic.
The present-day (by which I mean the 1970s, but the film treats as the present) scenes don’t fare much better. The main characters of Lomax and his wife are at least distinguishable by gender, but don’t emote much beyond tortured anguish and loving concern. While Firth and Kidman do admirably at conveying those emotions, they don’t exhibit much range here, and the lack of emotional resonance becomes wearisome much too quickly. It doesn’t help that most of the present-day sequences consist entirely of people just sitting around having calm conversations, with one notable exception toward the end, and even that quickly dissolves to a simmer. It makes it really hard to care about the emotional struggles of a person if there’s no encouragement for the audience to feel as they do.
I really appreciate what The Railway Man is trying to do here. This is a tragic tale of war crimes and a man’s struggle to overcome his emotional trauma, but the direction of this film seems so devoid of emotion that it’s hard to see this as much more than an artfully told lecture. And lectures by their very nature tend to be quite boring. Don’t give this one free pass, but pass up on it altogether.
Any historical films tickle your fancy in a way this one didn’t for me? Let me know in the comments below!