The Railway Man – review | Mark Kermode

Eric Lomax's story of life and death on the Burma railway gets another retelling, although it does get a little muddled

The story of Eric Lomax, a signals engineer who was forced to work on the infamous Thai-Burmese "Death Railway" after being taken prisoner by the Japanese during the second world war, has been told several times before, in print and on screen. We have Lomax's source memoir (upon which this film is based) and Mike Finlason's documentary Enemy, My Friend?, alongside an episode of the long-running Everyman TV show Prisoners in Time that cast John Hurt as the former soldier eaten away by nightmares of torture. Even Lomax's wartime tormentor Takashi Nagase has told his side of the story in the book Crosses and Tigers.

This latest retelling, from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, wrestles with themes of suffering and redemption as it criss-crosses between Colin Firth's ageing Lomax living a purgatorial existence in late 20th- century Britain and Jeremy Irvine's embattled young soldier suffering at the hands of his wartime captors.

It's not a match made in heaven; while the latterday segments make specific reference to Brief Encounter as railroad love blossoms between Eric and Patti (a dowdy Nicole Kidman), the Thailand sequences have an oddly televisual air that somewhat undercuts their dramatic clout. Hats off, however, to Irvine, whose vocal inflections carefully prefigure those of Firth's older man, drawing the intersecting threads together even as the narrative threatens to unravel. Considering the clarity of the real-life story, it's surprising how muddled and inert director Jonathan Teplitzky manages to make things, wibbling through complex junctions and shunting into narrative sidings like an oft-disrupted train journey. But you'd have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by this tale's final destination, even if the route there is somewhat circuitous.


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Railway Man: watch Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman in the world exclusive trailer - video

Watch the world exclusive first trailer for The Railway Man, the true life account of a former prisoner-of-war's horrific experiences on the Burma railway. Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star

10, Sep, 2013 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Railway Man: watch Colin Firth in an exclusive clip - video

Watch an exclusive clip from The Railway Man, which stars Colin Firth as world war II soldier and former prisoner of war Eric Lomax

07, Jan, 2014 @1:12 PM

Article image
The Railway Man – review | Peter Bradshaw

A potentially powerful film about a POW reconciling with his former torturer is let down by some woeful casting, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

09, Jan, 2014 @9:30 PM

Article image
The Guardian Film Show: 12 Years a Slave, The Railway Man, Last Vegas and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom – video review

Peter Bradshaw and Catherine Shoard join Xan Brooks to review the big film releases out this week

Xan Brooks, Peter Bradshaw, Catherine Shoard, Henry Barnes, Richard Sprenger and Thibaut Remy

10, Jan, 2014 @2:25 PM

Article image
The Railway Man: Toronto 2013 - first look review

Colin Firth turns in a performance of immense emotional complexity in this real-life tale of a former prisoner-of-war coming to terms with his time working on the Burma railway

Catherine Shoard

07, Sep, 2013 @3:53 PM

Article image
A Hidden Life review – Terrence Malick's homage to an Austrian conscientious objector
Malick’s poetic – and long – tale of the lonely trials of farmer Franz Jägerstätter

Simran Hans

19, Jan, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Colin Firth on The Railway Man: 'a whole chapter of history not taught'

Colin Firth joins screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce and the widow of the man he plays in new film The Railway Man in calling for greater understanding of the prisoners of war forced to work on the Burma railway

Catherine Shoard

08, Sep, 2013 @4:36 PM

Article image
The Railway Man: a tale of torture and redemption
Colin Firth stars in this adaptation of the memoirs of a POW tortured by the Japanese military during the second world war. No movie could recreate such horrors, but it’s easy to forgive this redemptive tale its mild flights of fancy

Alex von Tunzelmann

24, Jun, 2015 @8:47 AM

Article image
Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman aboard for second world war film The Railway Man
Filming set to begin on adaptation of Eric Lomax's bestselling account of his experiences as a POW on the Burma railway

Kirsty Scott in Edinburgh

27, Apr, 2012 @2:43 PM

Article image
Genius review – Colin Firth and Jude Law's literary bromance needs an edit
Michael Grandage’s debut film, on Thomas Wolfe and his literary editor Maxwell Perkins, is hammily acted, overstylised and lacking in subtlety

Henry Barnes

16, Feb, 2016 @1:18 PM