Nebbish 60-ish Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a railway fan. It's 1980, and he sports his big, plastic frames and a fuzzy moustache, making him look weirdly like a dead ringer for Kurt Vonnegut. It's a little unclear what he does for work, but his brain prefers to click with numbers, routes, and time-saving train hopping from point A to point B. This he explains to an attractive younger woman (Nicole Kidman) that he meets on a train. His numbers-clicking brain figures out that not only is she a catch, but she responds to his dorkiness and sweetness. Eric and Patti get married.
Shortly after the wedding, Patti sees a new side of Eric. She finds him screaming, writhing on the floor, having some horrific flashback. Eric's torments are kept far inside him, and it takes questioning of Eric's longtime friend (Stellan Skarsgaard) to find out that something very very bad happened to Eric as a POW in Southeast Asia during World War II.
The Railway Man flashes between the present (1980s) and the past (the war), as we learn that Eric was part of a group of British Army radio engineers in Indonesia that were captured as POWs by the invading Japanese army. Shuttled up to a camp in Thailand, the Brits were isolated and desperate for any outside news. In the meantime, using brutal (and strangely familiar in these modern times) torture methods, the Japanese try to get information from their prisoners.
As modern Eric retreats into his unaddressed memories, he finds out that the main Japanese interpreter who haunts him in his worst nightmares is actually still alive. He realizes that in order for his marriage to survive, and honestly, for him to survive, he has to confront his past.
The Railway Man is based on true story that is both harrowing, horrific, and redemptive. This war camp scenes are shot beautifully, as a golden paradise that turns out to be a special version of hell. In contrast, the modern parts are grey, dismal, and claustrophobic.
Unfortunately, though the characters are worth caring about, and the story is intriguing, the film itself feels inexplicably clunky. I'm not sure if it was the pacing or the direction (the acting was all top notch), but I almost felt it was missing the emotional climax that it deserved. With a story arc that should have had me sobbing, I felt only slightly moved when all was said and done, and I couldn't put my finger on exactly why... which is too bad, because Lomax's story is certainly a worthy one for a film.