‘The Railway Man’ Goes Off the Rails With Sentimentality

[27 August 2014]

By Jedd Beaudoin

The Railway Man, a British-Australian picture directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is based on a best-selling autobiography by Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was captured and tortured as World War II POW. Decades after his release, Lomax discovers that the man responsible for the majority of his torture is still alive. This persuades him to consider exacting revenge on the man. If at first it sounds like the makings of a thriller or anything else, know that there’s nothing particularly thrilling or captivating about a film that should stir in us strong emotions of pain and anger. At best, we feel mild amusement or begin developing the kind of interest in rail trivia our main character has; at worst, we can’t stop checking our watches, wondering when this whole thing will finally be over.

It’s not especially the fault of the cast. In fact, the casting is one thing this film has going for it. With Colin Firth in the lead role and Nicole Kidman (looking admirably plain) as his love interest, we have the makings of an exceptional cast and to his credit Firth does his very best throughout. Kidman in turn gives one of the most memorable performances of her career as of late, but the herky-jerky storytelling gets in the way, as we’re tossed to-and-fro between past and present, events that are magnified in the disturbed mind of protagonist and the realities that are not distorted at all. At the end of the first 30 minutes, you might legitimately find yourself asking what exactly is going on.

That’s not a polite question but certainly one that needs answering as the script doesn’t give the actors much to work with in terms of convincing plot or dialogue. We’re waiting for the inevitable, the stuff that’s described to us in the synopsis and the torpid pace keeps us guessing as to when all that hell is finally going to break loose. When it finally does, it’s so underplayed and absent any real danger than we can only mutter disbelief that a story filled with so much natural drama is rendered so sloppily in the end.

What also holds the film back is the loss of the strongest actor in the lot, Stellan Skarsgard, long before we reach any sort of climax. He’s such a gifted actor and such an immense presence in the film that when he leaves us we feel as though the whole world of the film has fallen apart. And, in truth, it does. Sure, his death gives the plot the kind of energizing action it needs but the action, as it’s rendered, is the equivalent of watching your grandfather get up to go brush his dentures.

What should have been a cathartic moment for our lead character and, thus, the audience, instead becomes some kind of sap that happens as an afterthought, as if to say, “Oh, we can’t have this be an unhappy film, let’s just make them be friends and call it good.” It’s Deus ex film studio machina, and a very poor example of the machina at that. This might be a decent film for your parents to watch together and get all sappy about but it’s sure not a picture worthy of the cast it wastes across the better part of two hours.

Extras include interview with cast and filmmaker, but even those can’t clean up the mess.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/184959-the-railway-man/