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Railway Man Review: Oddly Placed Drama Won't See Much Love

The Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman PTSD drama Railway Man fails to build desperately needed momentum. 

Review by: Matt Cummings 

With America once again exiting the stage of war, we've had a chance to see our men and women of the armed service grapple with the manacle that is PTSD. At the end of WWII, men returned as different people, fundamentally altered by their experiences but content to bear that burden alone. And while the drama Railway Man attempts to portray these struggles in a forgive/forget piece, the lack of momentum is painful to deal with.

British Army veteran As Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a shy, stoggy sort with an enduring passion for railroads. His knowledge of English railway timelines makes him at first seem like a lonely social misfit trivia, until a chance meeting with Patti (Nicole Kidman) aboard a train in 1980 convinces him to make friends. In a blink, the couple is married, enjoying a mid-life romance that soon turns dark, as Lomax begins to retreat into depression, brought on by his experiences in WWII. We learn that he was the victim of brutal tortures after a team of radio listeners was captured and forced to build a portion of the infamous Burma Railway, leaving many of them with deep psychological scars. After his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) eventually locates one of their oppressors, Lomax captures the unsuspecting Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) with plans to kill him. Caught between vengeance and the weight of Nagase's own heavy heart, Lomax must decide if murder will grant him the closure he so desperately needs.

Railway Man is both a curiosity and an oddity, stuck between two eras without a clue of how to get itself out. Well-cast and sure to appeal to art house enthusiasts, Firth and Kidman (missing throughout the third act) bring the gravitas in spades. With a growing American resume, Sanada proves that he can play among our best actors, expressing the range of emotions as the noose around him tightens. Skarsgård's character is so badly fleshed out that when a pivotal scene arrives, we're left wondering if it was meant for Lomax and not Finlay.

But at the same time, Railway Man never gets to the WHY of Lomax's decision, happily content to place the burden for explanation in our court, rather than take the two minutes to grant us a powerful epilogue. Its slow pace fails to reward audiences for sticking in there, lecturing us on the need to forgive, but utterly forgetting to showing us HOW to do it. Writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson adapted the autobiography without making this leap, settling instead for a personal journey that's painful to watch for the wrong reasons. Their plot simply trudges on, flipping between scenes of WWII waterboarding and Patti's growing worry that her new husband is seriously messed up. Director Jonathan Teplitzky paints a fabulous scene of typical England drudgery and the jungle of The Death Railway, but he too misses the basic points of film making. Our story fails to build up the conflict, slowly moving to a showdown between Lomax and Nagase that's as anti-climactic as they come. Perhaps we're too sold on an in-your-face method of storytelling, but Railway's artistic demands dull the experience and our appreciation for it, even though the performances are solid.

PTSD is a timeless topic that should never be marginalized. Telling the story of men who tried to bear that burden alone has the potential for Oscar glory, but Railway Man doesn't do enough to keep us actively involved in its resolution. We actually felt tired after watching it, as if we too were forced to break the rocks that brought The Death Railway to India. That's not a good feeling to have, and one that will bury the poorly-scheduled film among Summer explosions and comedic tomfoolery.

Railway Man is rated R for disturbing prisoner of war violence and has a runtime of 116 minutes. 

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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