THE Railway Man is a grim human drama that traces the extraordinary true story of Eric Lomax, a British officer who survived war, torture and forced labour at the hands of the Japanese only to return to the scene of the crime decades later to confront the man most responsible for his suffering.
Lomax never recovered from the trauma but he found a measure of solace in a lifelong love for trains, a bestselling book he wrote about his wartime experience and the love of a woman who helped to free him from a psychological prison. It's emotionally gripping stuff, although The Railway Man never takes full advantage of the material at its disposal, moving at a deliberate pace and choosing a more low-key (and possibly duller) route.
The film begins in 1980, when World War II has been over for 35 years. For Lomax (Colin Firth), however, the war goes on - in his head. Outwardly, he leads a solitary life in Scotland, occupied by books and a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of train timetables. On occasion, he meets fellow war veterans but for many, the war is still off-limits - their behaviour is ruled by a code of silence.
That code is breached when Lomax meets Patricia (Nicole Kidman) - appropriately enough - on a train. After a brief courtship and marriage, she witnesses a frightening meltdown and resolves to peel back the layers of hurt covering her husband. She learns from Lomax's friend, Finlay (Stellan Skasgard), about the deep psychological scars he bears.
The war still affects them all, none more so than Lomax, who is prone to hallucinations about his time in captivity. He's still haunted by Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), the Japanese officer who is Lomax's (played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine) main tormenter. Lomax and other members of his unit, captured at the fall of Singapore and then transported north to work on the infamous "Death Railway" between Thailand and Burma, engage in a form of resistance by building a makeshift radio receiver to secretly listen for news on the war.
The film skips back and forth in time between the war years and the 1980s and the drama heightens when Lomax learns that Nagase (played in his later years by Hiroyuki Sonada) has been conducting "reconciliation tours" in Thailand in an effort to come to terms with the past. Lomax reckons that the only way to exorcise his demons is to confront Nagase and exact retribution.
The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzsky and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Patterson, never fully harnesses the emotional energy of its primary subject - despite a compelling story, the film resembles a stodgy stage play at times. For decades, Lomax carried a deep hatred of his captors, until he realised that healing could only start with forgiveness. The Railway Man is no classic - but it's worth the journey nevertheless.