Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and co-penned by Olympic opening ceremony supremo and erstwhile Living Marxism columnist Frank Cottrell Boyce, The Railway Man was clearly a labour of love. Bringing the famed autobiography of Second World War officer and prisoner-of-war Eric Lomax to the screen, the film was shot in Scotland, Australia and Thailand, telling Lomax’s story across a 40-year period. All of which indicates the ambition and scope of the film.
The end product nevertheless offers few surprises: Colin Firth, playing Lomax, does what Firth does – a study in English reserve. Stellan Skarsgård, playing Lomax’s best friend Finlay, gets angry, again. However, the younger cast members, especially Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax, excel in portraying life in the wartime Japanese labour camp as Lomax and his fellow captives built the Burma Railway (aka the Death Railway).
British prisoners end up thrown in among enslaved Thais and other ‘natives’, facing brutality, disease and impossible conditions. As a skilled engineer, Lomax avoids this fate until he takes responsibilities for building a radio in secret, whereupon he is tortured. Here the Japanese are not portrayed as uniquely cruel, in the style of David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai – an epic towards which Finlay has a particularly grumpy attitude.
Cottrell Boyce is usually hostile to the traditional three-act structure of a screenplay, but The Railway Man is organised along these traditional lines. Still, the various parts are often incongruent: a romantic setup, disrupted by borderline gorno flashbacks of torture, followed by reconciliation.
To date, many reviews of The Railway Man have dismissed the film as likeable, period-piece Oscar-bait. Indeed, the emphasis on Lomax being able to open up about his true feelings seems anachronistic – a clear tug at the Academy’s heartstrings. The British stiff upper lip is replaced here by the need for reconciliation and finding closure, with all the predictability of a printed train timetable.