The Railway Man is a one-way ticket to disappointment

The Railway Man is the most dismal sort of bad movie one so woefully misguided and boring that it teases the audience with a series of B-movie delights only to crush the whole thing under a mountain of esthetic banality. The fact that it’s a true story only makes it worse cruelly trampling over a Second World War veteran’s harrowing tale of torture and hard-won redemption. The mind reels.

The film opens in the early ’80s with mustached old fuddy-duddy Eric (Colin Firth) catching a train across the English countryside on his way to a rare book auction. He’s a railway enthusiast obsessed with trains routes engines; you name it. In a bit of movie-made serendipity he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) a retired nurse. Some friendly chat leads to a marriage shortly thereafter.

The newlyweds are happy for a spell. Soon after Eric begins acting despondent and depressed waking from feverish nightmares. He’s begun to relive his experiences in a PoW camp during the war. (I say begun because it all looks and sounds like news to Patti.)

Eric was stationed in Singapore when the city fell to the Japanese in 1942. He and his comrades landed in a hellish camp run by cartoonishly sadistic guards. The British soldiers absconded with the makings of a primitive radio before landing in the camp and so they set it up in a nifty bit of derring-do and subterfuge. They test it out one evening and learn that the Allies have this one in the bag. The war’s gonna be over soon. Unfortunately the prison guards discover the contraband radio and Eric is tortured and beaten within an inch of his life. He barely survives returning home after being liberated a sad broken man.

All of these scenes are delivered via flashback like a low-budget version of Bridge on the River Kwai or Empire of the Sun . In a scene straight out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom we see British PoWs working as slave labour tirelessly quarrying a railway line while Japanese soldiers whip and beat their bodies. A younger bespectacled Eric and his fellow soldiers look like they’re trapped in my backyard; the camp is bare flat and depopulated.

Patti hoping to help her ailing husband turns to Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) a fellow soldier who tells Patti the origins of Eric’s post-traumatic stress disorder. That narrative thread basically ends after Finlay figuring that cold-blooded revenge is the best cure gives Eric the name and whereabouts of the Japanese soldier mainly responsible for his horrific treatment.

At this point the movie sets itself up for a Death Wish -styled revenge drama that isn’t delivered to the film’s detriment. That would have been much more interesting than the laziness that’s onscreen though I suppose that would have been far too offensive it being a true story and all. Even still the latter third of the film resembles a high school play trussed up with moments of hilariously uncomfortable S&M.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky keeps the camera tight on Firth’s face hoping to find some pathos in his droopy hangdog eyelids and mournful gaze. But like the rest of the cast (Kidman Skarsgård) he’s just… there filling the frame to no purpose. The film is a series of confused frowny faces punctuated by the occasional image of a bridge or railroad. Nobody seems invested; difficult to be so I imagine when trying to deliver the incessantly fatuous dry-as-a-biscuit dialogue. Scenes purporting to be “true” (to drive the point home the film concludes with photos of the real people) like a soldier being endlessly beaten and water-boarded are shamefully antiseptic and lifeless.

Eric’s true-life tale is a compelling one but The Railway Man has all the depth and nuance of a sweaty and sleazy war-themed Harlequin Romance novel. Move this one on down the line.

THE RAILWAY MAN directed by Jonathan Teplitzky starring Colin Firth Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgård opens on Friday April 25.