‘The Railway Man” is a curiosity: a World War II POW movie experienced mostly in the POW’s head decades after the events. Strictly speaking, this is a PTSD melodrama, and it has a therapeutic aspect that, at times, plays like telemovie earnestness. But it also has Colin Firth, which counts for a lot. Is anyone better at portraying Great Britain’s stiff upper lip cracking under extreme duress? In his Oscar-winning turn in “The King’s Speech,” Firth conveyed imperial arrogance straining to break free of a stammer; in “A Single Man,” he was a closeted gay man dying of the inability to mourn his partner.
As Eric Lomax, a shy, professorial sort with a passion for railway trivia, Firth at first seems absent-minded to the point of Asperger’s. As the film unfolds, though, we understand that Eric is simply incapable of living in the present. The past is never not with him.
It takes a while to get there. The first chapter of “The Railway Man” is set in 1980, when the aging Eric meets and falls quickly in love with Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) aboard a train. She’s a former nurse and an elegant, lonely woman; their romance is a “Brief Encounter” that turns out to be not so brief. At first the movie appears to be a mild late-life romance, but then the black dog of depression comes down, Eric retreats into his traumas, and “The Railway Man,” after some hesitation, follows.
The POW sequences are set during the building of the Burma Railway (including the infamous bridge on the River Kwai) by Allied prison labor under a sadistic Japanese yoke. The young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his fellow British Army officers are captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942; during the long train journey to Burma, only Eric is able to divine where they’re going and why.
Once there, the skeletal figures of POWs who’ve preceded them portend their fate. Eric and the other soldiers piece together a radio receiver, which ultimately brings him into conflict with one of the camp’s chief torturers, Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida). It’s their harrowing moments together that will turn out to haunt both men.
“The Railway Man” is based on the real Lomax’s 1995 memoir, which has already been the source of a documentary and a BBC TV movie starring John Hurt. (Lomax died in 2012 at 93.) Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, who until now has specialized in modern-dress genres (“Better Than Sex,” “Burning Man”), this latest version is appropriately serious about war’s psychological scars, the search for closure, and the tension between vengeance and forgiveness.
The complex screenplay shuttles between now and then, the inside of Eric’s head and the world outside it, the hero’s agony and his new wife’s desperate attempts to help him. (Kidman is affecting in a character part; she tries to hide her movie-star charisma under a bushel and mostly succeeds.) That’s a lot of balls to keep in the air, though, and Teplitzky drops a few. “The Railway Man” is touching in its muted sorrow but it has trouble settling on a shape and building momentum.
Too much shaping might be a betrayal of the real Lomax’s experiences, of course (although it might be worth mentioning that he was already married with two daughters when he met and fell in love with Patti). Still, it seems almost an afterthought when “The Railway Man” comes to its climax: the latter-day meeting between Eric and his one-time torturer, now played by Hiroyuki Sanada.
The scene is exquisitely suspenseful and remarkably moving, as much for the compassion it evokes as for the skill of the two men acting it out. Throughout, Firth compellingly plays a man struggling to make sense of the ordeal that his life has become. Too often, though, you can feel the movie struggling right along with him.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.