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Oscar winner Colin Firth lends his usual gravitas to role of damaged veteran

On the right track: Colin Firth revisits his traumatic past in The Railway Man.


On the right track: Colin Firth revisits his traumatic past in The Railway Man.

In wartime, soldiers are often pigeonholed according to nationality. The British soldier could be defined by his discipline and "stiff upper lip." The Japanese soldier, conversely, could be feared for his rigidly held sense of honour and sacrifice.

An adaptation of a true story, director Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man takes a wrecking ball to those comforting, illusory stereotypes in the story of Second World War veteran Eric Lomax.

Played in his middle age by Colin Firth, Lomax is a solitary man who, in the early '80s, whiles away his time indulging his fascination with railway travel -- trains, timetables and maps all committed to memory.

Other memories are submerged but not quite buried. Hence, Lomax is the picture of the affable, civilized English gentleman when he meets recently divorced nurse Patti (Nicole Kidman)... on a train, naturally.

The two fall in love and get married, to the amusement of some of Eric's few wartime friends, including their former ringleader, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard), dubbed "Uncle" by his cohorts.

But in the intimacy of marriage, Eric's issues reveal themselves in increasingly strange behaviour, including hallucinations of the traumas he suffered as a young man (Jeremy Irvine) while a prisoner of the Japanese. Ironically, Lomax spent that time as a slave labourer helping construct the Burma-Siam Railway.

In tensely drawn flashbacks, Lomax and his fellow engineers secretively construct a radio so they can hear news of the war within the vacuum of prison-camp existence. The scheme would cost Lomax in particular, suffering tortuous interrogations at the hands of Japanese interpreter Nagase (Tanroe Ishida).

In the face of his increasingly erratic behaviour, Patti convinces her husband to revisit the scene of his trauma. He does just that, but with vengeful purpose, after Finlay discovers Nagase (played as an older man by Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and offering tours of the prison facility, now a museum.

That trip, suffice it to say, has surprising consequences for all.

The film works largely on the strength of Firth's performance. In a way, this film could be considered a companion piece to the film that won him an Oscar in 2010.

Eric Lomax is the opposite side of the coin bearing the likeness of King George VI in The King's Speech. In that film, Firth portrayed a vulnerable man obliged to construct a figure of strength. In this film, he delicately strips the stoic veneer from a veteran to reveal the fragile but compassionate soul beneath.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 9, 2014 D3

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