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‘Railway Man’ falls flat in scattered drama

Colin Firth in a scene from “The Railway Man.”
Colin Firth in a scene from “The Railway Man.”

Post-traumatic stress is better recognized now than in earlier decades, but it has been an aftereffect of every war. It’s not until “The Railway Man” reveals the WWII survival story of its hero that we grasp the significance of the opening shot. Emotionally maimed Eric Lomax lies on his living room floor, reciting a children’s rhyme about the passage of time. His harrowing youth as a prisoner of war laboring on Japan’s Thai/Burma railway afflicts his adulthood three decades later.

The story, based on Lomax’s memoir, is compelling. Jonathan Teplitzky’s insipid screen version doesn’t do the rich material justice. The movie traps Colin Firth (as Lomax) and Nicole Kidman (as his wife, Patti) in a stodgy, conventional psychological drama. The film opens in the 1960s, with the stars rushing through their first-act courtship in that buttoned-up, tweedy manner that the British have perfected. Eric is so stodgy that if he offered Patti a valentine, it would be beige. We accept the pair’s swift marriage because they’re the stars, not because we feel chemistry between them.

Eric is at emotional arm’s length from the audience as well. He begins to come unglued and retreat from the dismayed Patti. His bland facade slips on their honeymoon, when he alarms her by writhing on the bedroom floor screaming incoherently. We don’t know him well enough for our sympathies to be engaged, or to understand why she feels so protective of this deeply damaged man. She seeks clues from his fellow vet Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard, with the world’s least-convincing Scottish accent). Their discussions are stilted exposition dumps establishing that the young Japanese officer who brutalized her husband is still alive. He’s now a tour guide at the prison camp-turned-museum. Should Patti tell Eric? Would a meeting help him find closure or enable him to take revenge?

Teplitzky’s disjointed film swings from the drab English countryside to sweaty Thai jungles, never finding the momentum an engaging drama demands. The flashbacks come in weighty chunks rather than swift, evocative layers. Scenes of wartime struggle with the younger Eric (Jeremy Irvine, deftly echoing Firth’s accent and affect) collide with episodes of haunted older Eric, splitting the focus so neither story takes hold.

The film makes high-principled observations about the horrors of military torture interrogations, PTSD and the need for reconciliation and forgiveness. But like the larger film, those messages feel ho-hum and rote. The noblest morals in the world mean nothing if they’re not compellingly dramatized.