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The Railway Man

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

Opens April 25 at Landmark Theatres Harbor East

Early on in The Railway Man

, bespectacled, mustachioed Eric Lomax (a dusty Colin Firth) sits across from a stranger, Patti (Nicole Kidman, sporting a brunette bob), in a train car gliding through English countryside. The two aging Brits make pleasant conversation, with Eric entertaining Patti with historical details of the towns outside the window. As they pass by a quaint village with stone houses scattered generously in the distance, he mentions

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Brief Encounter

was filmed there. The reference to David Lean's 1945 film about a married woman and a charming stranger who meet on a train platform and form a romantic connection might lead you to search for old-fashioned subtlety in

The Railway Man

, but director Jonathan Teplitzky's fourth feature film is a decidedly 21st-century war movie.

Like

The Grand Budapest Hotel

, it begins by submerging viewers in layers of time: first, a shot of a rusty bridge, with a young soldier walking by; then a darkened den with Eric stretched out on the floor, trembling, muttering a rhyme; then the British equivalent of a VFW hall, where he sits apart from a group of men, one of whom, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), prods Eric to say what's on his mind; then a flashback to a platform where Eric is rushing to board the train on which he will meet Patti for the first time. It's 1980. Once Patti and Eric get together-it happens rather sweetly and suddenly, with Patti quickly dispatching Eric's mustache-the film sprints forward, with a series of vignettes telegraphing the nature of their third-act relationship to us. They're both older, carrying some life baggage, but Patti is a nurse and is confident that she can mend whatever hurt Eric has suffered. They marry.

The Railway Man

launches not so much like a train slowly pulling out of the station and chugging forward ever faster as it begins like a bicycle with an unsteady rider who misses a pedal and wobbles about before getting into a groove. Not until Eric and Patti's honeymoon does the film find its footing-and it's jarring when it does. Eric's shirtless, sprawled sideways across the bed after making love to his new wife, when a Japanese soldier appears and orders him to march outside. Eric complies as if he's been expecting this all along. Here, the optimistic dream of a new life with Patti shatters, and the grim reality of Eric's dark memories takes hold.

Eventually, we reach our final chronological destination when the movie flashes back to Eric's service in World War II. In Singapore in 1942, the British Army suffered a massive defeat that ended with the Japanese taking 80,000 prisoners. Upon hearing from his commanding officer that Britain is surrendering and that the troops should destroy anything that might be of value to the enemy, a young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) stashes radio equipment in his uniform. Soon, he and his fellow officers-including young Finlay (Sam Reid)-are herded into a boxcar.

What follows is

The Bridge on the River Kwai

meets

Zero Dark Thirty

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(and some may be reminded of the even more recent

12 Years a Slave

). The captured troops are ordered to help in the construction of the Burma Railway, a brutal task that would ultimately claim the lives of almost 100,000 Asian workers and more than 12,000 prisoners of war. In one scene, as his unit talks about sabotaging the Japanese's efforts, Eric, a railway enthusiast, recounts the construction history of the world's great railroads. They were built, he says, by poor immigrant labor, and that the completion of this railroad-initially considered by the British-was thought too difficult, that it would necessitate inflicting the most hellish conditions imaginable on its builders. The speech engenders dread equally in the men who hear it and in the film's audience.

But while the graphic torture scenes laying in wait promise to make

The Railway Man

's audience squirm and wince, the film perseveres through what could have been a bleak story that bludgeons its viewers with a rehash of tribulations past. Despite the film's somewhat flawed structure, the story of Eric Lomax (who passed away in 2012, 17 years after the publication of his autobiography of the same name) is one that can't help but inspire and leave its viewers with something more than scars.

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