4 stars
Only crispy hearts would fail to be moved by what transpired during the WW2 construction of Burma's 'death' railway. Governed by Japanese occupiers, this piece of impossible engineering was finally built by slave labour - thousands of British and Australian soldiers - simply because there was no other way to build it. For those few who survived, their incarceration was an unspeakable horror causing pain and trauma that would last a lifetime. One such was Eric Lomax (Colin Firth). In 1960's Britain, the stiff-upper-lip type shields a dark secret from his new bride, but one that could not stay hidden long.

The story is a natural fit for Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky whose Burning Man also depicted the 'tortured soul' with winning results. In working Frank Cottrel Boyce's dynamic script (he penned Millions for Danny Boyle and 24 Hour Party People for Michael Winterbottom), Teplitzky teases deep, raw emotion from this most phlegmatic character. As you'd expect, Firth is terrific in the role, particularly as mental disorder takes over the life of a once button-downed train-spotter; his meltdown is simply gut-wrenching. Firth is given great support by Nicole Kidman as the wife who fails to see danger ahead, yet finds the courage to withstand the slings and arrows that come hurtling toward her.

The Railway Man is beautifully shot by Garry Phillips (Candy, Burning Man) who invests England in washed out beige and grey that forces an eye-peeling contrast with the tropical luminosity of the Gold Coast (standing in for Burma). These scenes are told in flashback, with War Horse's Jeremy Irvine subbing as the younger Lomax with notable ease. Through his eyes we witness the valiant soldiers' unimaginable torture, particularly at the washed hands of a Japanese interpreter who, decades later, plays a significant part in Lomax's climatic rehabilitation.

Yet for all the unpleasantness, something about Teplitzky's version of events (the story is adapted from Lomax's autobiography) plays a little too safe, while the only real surprise his film offers is an unwelcome one. The Railway Man wants for a little more narrative bang with its emotional punch. But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise compelling story that tackles some hefty, frequently uncomfortable themes with confidence. At its heart is Firth's visceral performance that convincingly tackles honour, trauma and deep burning vengeance to resolve in a profoundly cathartic way. Such maturity is rare and confirms Teplitzky as one to watch.


Previewed at Paramount Theatrette, Sydney, on 20 September 2013



Colin Firth
Nicole Kidman
Jeremy Irvine
Hiroyuki Sanada

Jonathan Teplitzky

Frank Cottrell Boyce

Australia / UK


116 minutes

December 26, 2013
The Railway Man (2013) on IMDb
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