Breaking away from the romantic roles that have made him an icon, Colin Firth goes to some dark places in The Railway Man. Playing a man who is haunted by his time almost 40 years previous in a Japanese labour camp during World War II, Firth gets one of the most interesting roles of his career. You just wish this movie let him explore it a little more.
The film is oddly set up like a romance between Firth and Nicole Kidman. Eric Lomax (Firth) meets Patti on a train. Total meet-cute scenario. They hit it off, and after getting off at his stop, he figures out a way to run into her again, and the romance takes off. It’s light romantic fare. Something that we are quite comfortable seeing Firth in, after roles in Love Actually, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Pride & Prejudice (not that this is as well-written as those modern classics). Then the film takes a jarring turn.
Right after they marry, Eric seems to go crazy. He cuts himself off from Patti. He becomes introverted, angry, and troubled. It’s an abrupt turn for the film to make. We then discover that he fought in WWII and his camp was taken over by the Japanese, where they were horribly mistreated. Eric leads the charge in building a radio in the camp in order to hear what’s happening at the frontline of the war. Once the Japanese find the radio, Eric is tortured and it leads to some brutal sequences. Playing the young Eric Lomax, Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) takes on the harrowing role of an tortured soldier.
Eric always remembers the Japanese interpreter, Nagase, who lead the interrogation of him. After Patti pushes Eric to confront his past, he heads to the site of the camp to confront Nagase who is now leading tours on the ruins of the camp. It’s this confrontation that makes up the third act of the film and really allows Firth to flex his acting chops.
Firth does what he can within the restrains of the story, but the script seems to have been written with the ending in mind all along, so Eric’s struggle never seems like that much of one. He’s never really allowed to truly explore his demons. The text at the end of the film saying what happened between Eric and Nagase after the events of the film proves to be more interesting than anything that happens onscreen.
Kidman’s role seems forced here. The first act focusing on their romance seems unnecessary. The film quickly forgets about her until she pops back up at the end for no real reason. I’m surprised Kidman even signed up for the role. Firth is a fantastic actor (he is a Oscar winner after all), and he’s great here, but his greatness is buried under a heavy-handed, safe script that knows exactly what its destination is.