Runtime: 116 minutes
WHAT makes a good biopic? It is not just finding the right actor or assembling the story correctly. The not-so-secret secret of success is matching tone to subject, be it epic (Lawrence Of Arabia), stark and pugnacious (Raging Bull), nervy and claustrophobic (The Social Network) or gleefully absurd (Ed Wood). Catch the mood, and a fitting sense of the person emerges.
The Railway Man understands this perfectly. In recounting the life and times of Eric Lomax, the Scottish signals officer who was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese in the Second World War, Jonathan Teplitzsky has delivered a quietly powerful, old-fashioned picture about the trials of combat and how they do not end when the shooting and shouting stops. It is a straight down the line story of one of life's straight arrows, and all the more compelling for that.
Lomax is played by two actors, with Jeremy Irvine as the young soldier, and Colin Firth as the older Lomax, living with his wife Patti (played by Nicole Kidman) in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Our first sight of the older Lomax is of him lying on the carpet, a man floored by flashbacks to the horrors he experienced while working as a forced labourer on the Thailand-Burma railway, aptly known as The Death Railway. The only way for Lomax is up, but for that journey there is no map to hand and no timetable in sight.
Teplitzsky, working from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, which in turn was adapted from Lomax's own memoir, takes its time in introducing its subject.
We will get to know the older Lomax first, his strengths and his crippling lows, before finding out what made him that way. In that sense, the audience is put on a par with Patti Lomax, who was herself starting from scratch in finding out the details of her husband's wartime past. These things, Lomax tells his wife, are "matters that don't concern you". The stiff upper lip has enforced its own silence.
By the end of the film's first act, however, it is plain that Lomax's coping strategy is simply not coping any more. Time, then, to visit the past.
Teplitzsky takes the same slow build approach to the scenes set in the Far East as he does to introducing the older Lomax.
As if preparing the viewer for the horrors ahead, the picture moves from brief flashbacks to longer interludes, opening with the fall of Singapore in 1942. The unthinkable defeat has happened, and the Japanese are rounding up prisoners. The young Lomax, gangly, bespectacled, still just a boy, is one of them.
His knowledge of the railways means he soon realises the scale of the task the Japanese have set, and how deadly it will be. It is his resourcefulness in other areas, in building a radio from bits of scrap to learn news from home about how the war is going, that leads to his seizure and torture. Unwilling to believe that all the boy was trying to do was find some cheer for his fellow troops, the Japanese treat him as a spy and torture him relentlessly.
No picture could come close to conveying what Lomax and others went through on that railway and in those camps, and, to the credit of the filmmakers, they do not try. It is largely left to the imagination what happens when the camera cuts away, but the screams, and the looks on faces afterwards, say everything that is required. The scenes on the railway, as a track is clawed out of the jungle, offer their own minuscule glimpses of hell.
Before long, the torture sessions settle into a grisly pattern, with two clear protagonists: the victim and one of his victimisers, the translator. In Lomax's mind, then and in the future, this man embodies the cruelty and horror of war. He is the cause of Lomax's suffering, something to be locked away in the past. The idea that he could ever play a part in Lomax's future is incomprehensible.
Though it plays out here in a straightforward style, Lomax's story was, in fact, one of extraordinary complexity. It spanned war and peace, hatred and joy, and there was a portrait of a marriage in there too. Teplitzky's film can only ever touch on each aspect, but it nevertheless leaves one with a firm sense of the man who died in October 2012.
That it does so is largely down to the outstanding performances of Firth and Irvine. It is no surprise that Firth, the epitome of fortitude under pressure, should be such a fine fit for Lomax, though the fact both actors do not attempt Scottish accents is disappointing to say the least.
It is Irvine who is the revelation here. The boy of War Horse and Great Expectations becomes a man before our eyes, taking Lomax from wide-eyed optimist to a crushed, lost soul.
What became of that soul is set out in a moving, honest fashion. Absence of a Scots accent aside, it is a fitting salute to a thoroughly Scottish hero.