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‘The Railway Man’: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman in harsh, heartrending history lesson

Tranut Eric Lomax (ColFirth) is reluctant talk about his experiences as prisoner war “The Railway Man.”  |  WEINSTEIN

Train nut Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is reluctant to talk about his experiences as a prisoner of war in “The Railway Man.” | WEINSTEIN CO.

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Eric Lomax Colin Firth

Patti Lomax Nicole Kidman

Young Eric Jeremy Irvine

Finlay Stellan Skarsgard

Nagase Takashi Hiroyuki Sanada

The Weinstein Co. presents a film directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and written by Andy Paterson. Running time: 108 minutes. Rated R (for disturbing prisoner of war violence). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: May 19, 2014 12:46PM

Even as “12 Years a Slave” was garnering four-star reviews and winning numerous awards on its way to the Oscar for Best Picture, many film fans told me they were sure it was a fine and important picture, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to sit through such a story. Too painful.

My standard response is I’d much rather go through an admittedly tough viewing experience with a “Schindler’s List” or a “12 Years a Slave” than sit through another mindless comedy or cynical action film.

But it’s a legitimate reluctance. I understand where people are coming from.

Jonathan Teplitzky’s “The Railway Man,” which is based on the true story of a British Army officer in World War II and the Japanese Imperial Army officer who tortured him, is another prestige film that sometimes feels more like a history assignment than entertainment.

The story is an awe-inspiring tale of the human heart’s capacity to forgive. The performances are magnificent. But as the story grinds forward in sometimes methodical fashion, with so much pain and despair in front of us, subtlety and suggestion give way to overcooked melodrama and blunt, brutal scenes of torture that make points we’ve already absorbed more than once.

You know the kind of movie that makes you say “I can’t wait to see that again!” the minute it’s over? This is the exact opposite of that kind of movie.

Colin Firth is one of our finest actors, and he’s in his comfort zone here playing Eric Lomax, a middle-aged man circa 1980. Lomax is a serious, whip-smart, socially inept man with oversized glasses and an obsession with trains. (“A train enthusiast” is how Lomax describes himself, but he knows everything about every railroad route in Great Britain. You’d call him a train nut, not an enthusiast.)

On one of Lomax’s train rides, he finds himself sitting opposite a beautiful nurse named Patti (Nicole Kidman). Such is Lomax’s obsession with trains and train schedules that it takes him a while to warm up to this wonderful and sweet woman.

For a while “The Railway Man” plays like an old-fashioned romance, with Patti coaxing Lomax out of his shell and Lomax introducing Patti to his pals at the officers’ club, including his best friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard, who is in a total of 10 movies in 2013-14).

But even during the honeymoon phase, there are foreboding hints — well, not hints, more like BRIGHT RED WARNING SIGNS — of Lomax’s tormented past. Gingerly exploring Lomax’s dark and cheerless home, Patti opens an armoire and finds a lone item on a hanger: Lomax’s World War II uniform.

Even more alarming: Lomax is plagued by nightmares so intense he winds up on the floor, screaming and dripping with sweat.

Lomax refuses to talk to Patti about his experiences as a POW in World War II, but she finally convinces the reluctant Finlay to tell the story — and that’s when we get the flashback scenes, with Jeremy Irvine (“War Horse”) doing an excellent job of looking and sounding like a young Colin Firth without ever delving into impersonation. The director Teplitzky expertly handles the shift from 1980s romance to a “Bridge on the River Kwai”-type World War II film. We learn Lomax’s nightmares come from being captured (along with Finlay and a host of other young engineers) by the Japanese in Singapore and forced to work building the Burma-Thailand railway.

When a makeshift radio built by Lomax and his fellow engineers is discovered, it’s Lomax who steps forward to take responsibility. We move back and forth in time, from the early 1940s to the early 1980s. The older Lomax seems on the verge of surrendering to his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and we see exactly why in the protracted scenes depicting the torture inflicted on Lomax by the Japanese, including an interpreter named Nagase Takashi. (Tanroh Ishida plays Takashi as a young man.)

It’s the 1980s Finlay who learns Takashi is still alive — working as a tour guide at the very prison camp where Lomax was tortured. (It had become a war museum.) Lomax now has the opportunity to literally confront his demons.

What happens next is best for you to discover should you choose to see “The Railway Man.” Suffice to say this is one of those “based on a true story” tales that might defy belief were it not steeped in fact.

Hiroyuki Sanada plays the older Takashi. His scenes with Firth are intense and powerful. The cinematography in “The Railway Man” is first-rate, as we move from the grays and browns of 1980s Britain to the vivid yellows and reds of Singapore, and the claustrophobic darkness of the torture chamber.

Sometimes “The Railway Man” is hard to watch. It’s also hard to imagine anyone watching it and not being deeply moved.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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