The Railway Man begins with bumbling Colin Firth, bemused Nicole Kidman and a romance on a train — the kind of witty love-at-first-sight meeting that the actors might have milked into an entire movie a decade or two ago.
But there's great pain ahead, deeply buried truths and ultimately an attempt at redemption and reconciliation. Firth and Kidman are up for the challenge, complementing the compelling story with measured and memorable performances.
Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky's mystery/drama focuses heavily on the themes of torture and recovery in Eric Lomax's 1995 autobiographical novel. It has the simplified feel of a book-made-into-a-movie at times (among other things, the filmmakers leave out Lomax's first wife and three children), but it's still a tense and moving experience.
Eric (Firth) is a retired British World War II veteran in the early 1980s, and he has a savantlike knowledge of English railways and military history. He meets Patti (Kidman), a former nurse who is also adrift. They instantly have an intellectual connection, and the whirlwind affair doesn't leave time for Patti to fully understand Eric's demons. As his breakdowns get worse, she pushes him to confront his past.
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As the movie creeps forward with teases from a prison camp, Firth and Jeremy Irvine (playing the younger Lomax in harrowing flashbacks) convincingly show how a gentle young soldier becomes a broken man.
Firth's performance is the most memorable, but Kidman's believability as a new wife who thinks her husband is worth fighting for holds the movie together. Pacing problems in the second half, when the present-day scenes become more scarce, are much less damaging because of Kidman's ability to make best use of every moment onscreen.
Firth seamlessly plays a man at least 15 years older than his own age (53), and Kidman has her greatest success yet looking and acting her age (46). The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, to the point where Teplitzky deserves credit for his work with the cast of hundreds — especially in the more densely populated prison scenes. Character actor Bryan Probets is particularly memorable in a small role as an officer whose brain has been short-circuited by the prison camp.
For such a torment-filled story, the ending is surprisingly satisfying, with an important message that a lesser filmmaker might have telegraphed too much. The Railway Man is a thoughtful reprieve from the louder and less subtle cinema that starts coming out this time of year.