“The Railway Man” is three different movies bolted together with overtures toward a fourth tacked on at the beginning. There is potential in its premise — a former World War II prisoner of war attempts to track down his tormentor and find peace — and there are isolated moments when the movie works. Yet, director Jonathan Teplitzky smothers his proceedings with a blandly pretty style and an annoyingly overblown score.
It is impossible to be drawn into this film, which hits audiences with its message as aggressively as the Japanese torture it so dotingly depicts. The script, credited to “Millions” writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and the film’s producer Andy Paterson, strands its characters, forcing them to talk about the story and its themes instead of dramatizing it and adding subtext.
At the very least, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman are good sports. As an older Eric Lomax and Patti, who comes to love him, they have enough chemistry to make viewers wish the couple had better material to work with.
An early scene of the lovers meeting on a train could have been plucked out from one of Firth’s warm romance films. But soon, Firth begins exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder and does nothing beyond brooding silently, walking on the beach and surrendering to sudden bursts of violence.
Kidman puts her all into the material, proving again that she can be good in absolutely anything, but her character does not do much besides simply asking Lomax’s friends what happened.
Jeremy Irvine, the talented lead of “War Horse,” also does quite well for himself and adapts many of Firth’s mannerisms as a younger version of his character.
Teplitzky presents scattered, brutal moments of Lomax’s time as a POW, leading up to Firth’s character being accused of aiding the enemy, when the sequences get even uglier. The issue with this plot is that the beatings, hot boxing and waterboarding are depicted so hysterically that they start canceling each other out. It is torture porn posing as Oscar bait.
It is not until Lomax discovers his torturer is alive and sets off to find him that the biggest shock of “The Railway Man” is revealed — that hiding throughout all of this was half of a good movie. The film’s second hour, despite containing more brutal flashbacks, is when Teplitzky starts hitting the right notes.
It helps that Lomax’s switch to avenging angel adds a disturbing shade to Firth’s weary inscrutability, turning that awkward leading man into a poker-faced tormentor. It also helps that his target is played by the great Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, whose screen presence is more than capable of matching Firth’s.
Once the two actors approach each other, “The Railway Man” suddenly becomes both riveting and thoughtful, with interesting ideas about revenge, empathy and the odd bond between enemies. Unfortunately, this engaging story is muddled by a lackluster first half.
A version of this article appeared on the Wednesday, April 9 print edition. J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.