Colin Firth cements his reputation as the go-to man for repressed, buttoned-up masculinity with another performance of feeling and depth, playing a former soldier traumatised by World War II. What a shame then that the rest of the film is less stiff-upper-lip, more just stiff. It’s based on an acclaimed memoir by Eric Lomax, who was captured by the Japanese, tortured and put to work on the notorious Burma railway in his early twenties. After decades suffering what we’d now call post-traumatic stress, he met and forgave the Japanese officer responsible.
In Firth’s every grimace and flinch you feel the torment of Lomax’s private world, but emotionally ‘The Railway Man’ feels trimmed and tidied up. His story has been adapted into a conventional, solid, occasionally clumsy drama. Though it begins with a lovely scene, as Lomax, a lifelong railway enthusiast, meets his wife Patti (Nicole Kidman in frumpy vintage BHS), ‘Brief Encounter’-style on a train. Lomax is the prickly, bachelor type – owl glasses, old-man tweeds and a caterpillar moustache crawling across his upper lip. His chat-up line is a running commentary of the towns they pass through (‘Lancaster. Known as the hanging town…’). The whole thing plays like a mildly titillating Werther’s Original advert. Jeremy Irvine (giving Firth a run for his money) plays the young Lomax in flashback as a geekish engineer who, with suicidal bravery, confesses to the Japanese he is responsible for building an illegal radio.