Film and TV

The Railway Man tracks the aftermath of war

Has it ever occurred to contemporary commercial filmmakers that maybe audiences could take a movie's word for it that a character has been tortured? That perhaps implication and skilled acting could communicate the idea with sufficient power, and that we might all be spared the screaming and limb-breaking and slow-motion violation of the body? That maybe brutal victimization and the stripping away of humanity is not necessarily an opportunity for a setpiece?

Yes, there's torture in Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man, one of those based-on-a-true-story prestige jobs. The story is incredible, wise and humane, and it might have been more effectively told — narrated, perhaps as a documentary — than it is shown here. The things in British Army officer Eric Lomax's memoir that matter most are just what conventional film drama tends to duff: grief and healing over the course of a life; the plodding misery of a marriage starved of communication; the fresh, slow turning of gears long stuck inside a quiet man.

Capturing strangled interiority is one of narrative cinema's greatest challenges, so it's no surprise that to suggest the trauma that haunts Lomax (Colin Firth), The Railway Man borrows the visual language of much simpler hauntings. Years after World War II, Lomax marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), who does not know that he suffered protracted torture in a Japanese prison camp. She knows something's up, though, because in the spare bedroom of their creepy old home, the wardrobe flaps open, and hanging inside is just one thing: Lomax's old uniform. Such ghost-story literalism reduces the actual agony suffered by the actual Lomax to movie nonsense. The memories are coming from inside the house!

The Railway Man proves more successful when showing us the kinds of things at which movies today are successful, namely guys doing stuff. There's brooding power in early shots of a shaken-up Lomax dwarfed by the railroad bridges that afford him a steady, sturdy pleasure. He's a train enthusiast, but the title refers even more directly to the ordeals he faced as a P.O.W. at the end of the war, which we see in well-realized flashbacks. Lomax and his company are captured by the Japanese and forced to toil on the construction of a railroad line running from Burma to Thailand. As with those scenes of bridges, Teplitzky favors gliding the camera past men framed against a larger world. As the young Lomax, Jeremy Irvine is all innocent bustle, even as he's screaming his head off in pain; Firth, meanwhile, is too often left staring off into space, the movie's method of letting us know a memory's coming on. These flashbacks are themselves a feat of impressive engineering: Several sequences bristle with superior energy and artistry, especially a brisk episode in which the Brits, working together, sneakily cobble together a radio so they can listen in on how the war's going.

In the final part of the movie, the adult Lomax journeys back to the camp to confront the Japanese interpreter who aided the torturers in questioning him. These scenes, adapted from real lives, can't help but move, even when the dialogue becomes mannered and declarative, and this pair of shattered, stoic men say out loud (or in epistolary voiceover) all the things the actors have already implied. In the final minutes, Firth at last has something to play other than closed-mouth depression. It's heartening to have a tony war film about PTSD and forgiveness; it would be grander still to have one that dedicated itself more fully to examining the courage it would take to offer that forgiveness rather than dash its energies upon the dreary cowardice of the crime itself.