The last time I saw Jeremy Irvine, it was in Steven Spielberg’s handsomely shot but overly stately and sterile panorama of the destruction and suffering of World War I, “War Horse.” He returns to my attention in Jonathan Teplitzky’s “The Railway Man,” a handsomely shot but overly stately and sterile panorama of the destruction and suffering of World War II. The boy needs a better agent.
Irvine’s acting chops have significantly strengthened since Spielberg’s film, and “The Railway Man” gives him much more of an opportunity to flex – there are only so many ways to stare, longingly and doe-eyed, at a horse, but as many a 1990’s BBC devotee will attest it’s no small thing to convincingly imitate a young Colin Firth. As the younger version of their shared self – British Signal Corps veteran and railway enthusiast Eric Lomax – Irvine takes on Firth’s precisely clipped elocution and darting expression, traits the older actor has always used to exude warmth with a stiff upper lip. But for Irvine these mannerisms are tested under dire circumstances: beaten and tortured in a Japanese POW camp in southeast Asia, Young Eric endures while Old Eric broods.
And while Firth-faced Old Eric may be, he can not liven up Australian Teplitzky’s clinically composed depiction of war trauma. More convincing depictions of PTSD have explored the notion of the past bleeding into the present – “Jacob’s Ladder,” perhaps most memorably, put Tim Robbins’ flashbacks in the realm of life-threatening horror. But beyond a few awkward and highly telegraphed hallucinations, Teplitzky puts too great a delineation between what is happening and what has happened: Lomax the Elder’s struggle for peace and mental quiet lacks the immediacy and urgency of the wartime flashbacks. Outside of Irvine’s sterling mimicry, the POW camp scenes seem to regard a completely different set of characters than the fumbling, repressed adults of “The Railway Man’s” ‘contemporary’ setting.
The story, nominally inspired by true events, is alternately plodding and disquieting. Years after the war has ended, Lomax remains haunted by the horrors he witnessed and the pain he suffered, sabotaging his attempts to move on and build a new life with the blankly pretty British waif Patti (Nicole Kidman) he happens to meet cute. When he is informed by a curiously omniscient friend and fellow vet Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) that one of his Japanese captors and primary antagonist is still alive and profiting off the war by providing guided tours of former prison camps in Thailand, Lomax is faced with what should be a gut-wrenching conundrum between revenge and forgiveness.
Instead, what we are given is the barest bones of a domestic drama occasionally padded out and enlivened by the flashbacks to Lomax the Younger. For three-quarters of the film, Patti repetitively demands – first to her husband, then to Finlay, then back to her husband again – that Eric open up to her about his wartime experiences. Considering we learn nothing about Patti herself beyond her fuzzy assertions that she used to be a nurse (whether with Briony at St. Bartholomew’s or Lady Edith at Downton Abbey, who can say), the Firth/Kidman scenes become a frustrating exercise in stultified non-communication. By exclusively revealing Lomax’s war experience through the Irvine scenes, “The Railway Man” robs the contemporary scenes of most of their resolution – we never see what must be a cathartic moment when Lomax finally opens up to his wife, nor much of any debate regarding his decision to hunt down Takeshi Nagase.
Even this climactic confrontation, which is so inherently fraught it briefly threatens to redeem the entire film, plays out so broadly it becomes hard to believe these two men have actually met before. Desperate to have Lomax and Nagase stand in for the larger suffering of warring nations, Teplitzky and his screenwriters lose the opportunity for a truly piercing, nail-biting character piece. This should be an actor’s paradise – Firth, sleepwalking through the majority of the film, temporarily flickers to life here – and you can see how, reinvented entirely as a bottled, two-man one-act, “The Railway Man” would spark. Tired platitudes and yet more flashbacks simply bog it down.
Still, given the weight of his subject and his undeniably impeccable craft, Teplitzky stumbles into moments of great power. The most striking, to me, takes place in an early scene, wherein some Thai villagers attempt to relieve the plight of the British POWs, trapped inside railway cars on their way to their labor camp. These nameless Samaritans offer water to the Brits’ cupped hands until the Japanese officers take notice and beat the villagers back – at which point Teplitzky lingers on a shot of the prisoners’ outstretched arms slowly, dejectedly slithering back into their cage. It’s an unexpected, uneasy image, part “Shoah” and part Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Another, very brief scene, in which Lomax stalks Nagase through a Buddhist temple, is likewise all the more subtle in its wordlessness.
Too often, however, Teplitzky’s influences are more transparent: “Apocalypse Now” and, of course, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” get their obvious visual nods. You might think, considering how close this film’s narrative hews to the latter, that the writers would steadfastly avoid using the “m”-word, but no such luck.
For the most part, in other words, “The Railway Man” opts for the easy choices. It knows it can score emotional points both with sudden brutality and the promise of redemption, and it sticks to that script. This is a story that raises many of the dark complexities of war, addressed in classic, immaculately framed style. The risk of such tasteful filmmaking is that it can turn out so awfully bland.
It was playing for a weekend in the tiny theater in Bucksport, Maine. That’s basically going to be the story of this summer for me, guys.
Verdict: 2 out of 4 stars