"The Railway Man" had the opportunity to explore the true story behind such tales as "The Bridge on the River Kwai," with a neat twist of peace and reconciliation. Instead, it falls prey to a self-seriousness that's exacerbated by clunky pacing and flat characters.
Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) seems like your typical disheveled professor type when we meet him at the beginning of "The Railway Man." This harmless, schlubby Brit soon reveals himself to be a bit of a railway fanatic — he prefers the term enthusiast — as he begins chatting with the beautiful traveler sitting across from him on the train. Eric explains at length the different lines and histories thereof that Patti (Nicole Kidman) might take during her travels, and for some reason she's not actually put off by this obsessive unspooling of facts and figures. In fact, she's pleased when Eric pulls off a meet-cute as a train station, helped by his, err, enthusiasm for trains and their schedules. In addition to trains and his grubby bachelor pad, Eric enjoys the company of a group of dour older men whom he meets in a nearly empty restaurant. They seem to share the same lingering air of sadness, and soon Eric's crippling PTSD and flashbacks fill in the blanks.
For some reason that's left unexplained, Eric's symptoms don't manifest to Patti until after their married. Instead of ditching her new hubby and his crippling nightmares and rages (not to mention stacks of unpaid bills), she investigates what happened to him, starting with his old pal Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who warns her to leave things alone. That's the opposite of what Patti does, and pretty much all Patti does; she's just there to serve as a sort of catalyst to Eric's healing.
"The Railway Man" relies on flashbacks between current-day Eric Lomax, as he quickly unravels, and what he experienced as a POW during WWII. As an engineer for the Allies, he was captured by the Japanese and forced to help build the Burma Railway. Since he was an engineer, he didn't have to physically work on the railway, though it was no less grueling in the camp. One man, a translator named Nagase stood idly by while young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) was tortured as a suspected traitor. Patti and Finlay learn that the same Nagase is alive and thriving — in fact, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is now a Buddhist who works at a museum built on the site of the former prison — and use this information to prod Eric into facing his past.
In addition to sloggy pacing that emphasizes modern-day Eric's moping and Patti's angelic support, "The Railway Man" suffers from a script that places dramatic emphasis in all the wrong places. Eric Lomax was a real person, and this is based on his autobiography, but the real Lomax was seeking emotional closure and healing. The movie focuses on whether or not Eric might turn the tables and kill or torture Nagase in turn, a possibility that's not in the spirit of Lomax's book. More importantly, it's not given enough space to breathe to even be believable. Eric shows flashes of rage earlier in the movie, but it's impossible to pretend he might hurt Nagase the way he was hurt.
The attempt to drum up this drama feels strenuous, from David Hirschfelder's bombastic score to the grey beachscapes that Patti and Eric bleakly wander. As a story about the secrets survivors of war keep from themselves and their loved ones, "The Railway Man" holds great possibility but wanders off track.