The story of Eric Lomax, a signals engineer who was forced to work on the infamous Thai-Burmese “Death Railway” after being taken prisoner by the Japanese during the Second World War, has been told several times before, in print and on screen. We have Lomax’s source memoir (upon which this film is based) and Mike Finlason’s documentary Enemy, My Friend?, alongside an episode of the long-running Everyman TV show Prisoners in Time that cast John Hurt as the former soldier eaten away by nightmares of torture. Even Lomax’s wartime tormentor Takashi Nagase has told his side of the story in the book Crosses and Tigers.
This latest retelling, from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, wrestles with themes of suffering and redemption as it criss-crosses between Colin Firth’s ageing Lomax living a purgatorial existence in late 20th-century Britain and Jeremy Irvine’s embattled young soldier suffering at the hands of his wartime captors.
It’s not a match made in heaven; while the latterday segments make specific reference to Brief Encounter as railroad love blossoms between Eric and Patti (a dowdy Nicole Kidman), the Thailand sequences have an oddly televisual air that somewhat undercuts their dramatic clout. Hats off, however, to Irvine, whose vocal inflections carefully prefigure those of Firth’s older man, drawing the intersecting threads together even as the narrative threatens to unravel. Considering the clarity of the real-life story, it’s surprising how muddled and inert director Jonathan Teplitzky manages to make things, wibbling through complex junctions and shunting into narrative sidings like an oft-disrupted train journey. But you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by this tale’s final destination, even if the route there is somewhat circuitous.