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Railway Man, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Could afford to get a little off-track"
3 stars

This is a movie seemingly designed for awards consideration that the Weinstein Company released in April, and while that may just be an example of them deciding another horse was a safer bet... Well, "Philomena" was the safer bet for a reason. "The Railway Man" has all the right intentions but little more, winding up as blandly by-the-numbers a take on this sort of story as you can imagine.

The story is that of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway enthusiast of about sixty when the audience meets him in 1980, which is when he meets newly-single Patti (Nicole Kidman) - on a train, of course. They are soon married, and Patti learns that Eric's PTSD can sometimes be crippling. She eventually gets his platoon-mate Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard) to tell the story of how they were taken prisoner in Singapore during World War II, with Eric (Jeremy Irvine) in particular tortured at the hands of the Japanese, in particular translator Takeshi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) - who, out turns out, is still alive and conducting tours of the old prison camp.

This leads to the pair having an enjoyably confrontational sit-down, and it's at that point that the movie really crackles for the first time, as it's just Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada, and an implied threat in a room. Part of that implied threat is sort of directed at the movie itself, as many in the audience will find themselves cringing at the prospect of this fine cast being put together just to lead up to an extended sequence of grim and bloody revenge. It absolutely needs to be a possibility in order to keep the tension in that room high, but it starts to seem like a much stronger possibility than it might otherwise be when the audience realizes that there is nothing particularly holding things back.

A fairly lackluster script is mostly to blame for that. You can point out that the film is based on true events, and specifically the real-life Lomax's book, but the existence of the latter helps make the point: This is a man with the talent to write both a well-received memoir and the poem that recurs in a couple of spots, but there's little sign off that intellect other than tossing off a few facts during that first meeting with Patti. Neither screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce & Andy Paterson nor director Jonathan Teplitzky are able to do much with the fascination with railroads and schedules that gives the story its title beyond occasionally showing a train on-screen, despite the fact that it seems like it could be a rich metaphor, whether for being stuck on a path or how building one is a backbreaking exercise or how a clever man who understands the schedule can put it to use. In other places, the film just send sloppy, with characters asserting things that drive the movie despite very little evidence and a conclusion that seems to be repeated just in case the audience missed the point (followed by the sort of "what happened after" text that makes a viewer wish he or she saw that movie). Plus, it's bad enough to have something happen to a supporting character just to motivate the lead, but actually saying that's what's going on seems exceptionally tacky.

So the vast does what it can, and that's usually an excellent job. The casting department did very well in finding Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, and Tanroh Ishida as guys that one can easily believe might mature into Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgaard, and Hiroyuki Sanada, and the younger cast members certainly handle the transition from fresh-faced soldiers believing that the current situation is just a setback to men recognizing the horrors of war quite well. Their older counterparts project all the gravitas that one expects of them as actors most of the time, with Sanada maybe a bit wobbly toward the end and Skarsgaard perhaps pushing the English reserve a bit too hard. Firth is predictably excellent when active, although he's got a somewhat less sever case of whatever affliction causes Nicole Kidman's Patti to go from sharp and charismatic when she's affecting the outcome of a scene to looking befuddled when she's not.

A way really should have been found to have more of Firth and Kidman playing off of each other, because their characters' romance is charming and engaging even as parts are slightly accelerated with crisp editing that stops short of making it a montage. The rest of the present-day material is fair - Teplitzky and his crew present it as recognizably the 1980s but also with a strong sense of Lomax and Finlay still stuck in the war - while the WWII-era sequences certainly look authentic, although the stakes sometimes feel a bit off. It's all quite handsome and well-acted, and by and large lacks the bloat of motion pictures trying to both deal with serious issues and give what is effectively two casts a chance to shine.

It is, in fact, a perfectly respectable movie, and maybe that respectability would feel like enough if it didn't name-drop "The Bridge on the River Kwai". Sure, that movie's combination of black comedy and daring-do would be the wrong tone for this story, but when a movie is just checking off boxes, it's probably best not to remind the audience that a great film can be exciting and engrossing as well.

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originally posted: 06/04/14 12:50:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Zurich Film Festival For more in the 2013 Zurich Film Festival series, click here.

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  11-Apr-2014 (R)



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