“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”

William Shakespeare.

Colin Firth is unquestionably one of the finest film actors of our time. There is no grand standing and flamboyance. It’s just Colin. No matter the part, there he is. He’s Colin and he’s welcome. We feel comfortable with him.

In “The King’s Speech,” where he mastered the painful stammer of King George VI, who never wanted to take the throne, he wore the British tweeds like royal armor.

Here, in “The Railway Man,” a powerful, moving story of war and its repercussions, of torture and loss, Firth takes on the painful mantel of a haunted soul, tortured by his youthful experiences in a Japanese prison camp. In his early scenes, in post war England, he plays an expert train enthusiast, obsessed by details.

“The Railway Man” is the true story of Eric Lomax, a former World War II British radio officer who, at the fall of the British garrison at Singapore, is captured and sent into hard labor building a Japanese railroad and bridge over the Burmese River Kwai on the Thai-Burma Railway. Here he is singled out and horribly tortured for building and hiding a secret radio.

“Railway Man” centers on the real human story, and focuses on just one man, a survivor. In this moving story, we are on the ground with Lomax, with him in the jungle, the camps, mines and bamboo cages. In much of the film, the younger Lomax is played by a talented newcomer, Jeremy Irvine (the young boy in “War Horse.”) We spend a lot of time with Irvine/Lomax, especially in the torture room that show the work of a well trained and gifted young actor with a bright future.

The film begins and ends with the civilian Lomax back from the dark past and dealing with the blinding light of the now.

Lomax has few friends, one in particular who was there with him in the camps, Finlay, (the talented Stellan Skarsgard) a statistician who is equally haunted by the horror, but who, on the surface, seems able to cope. There is more to him. We will come to see it.

We know from the start that at the center of it all is the memory of one man, Takeshi Nagase, (an excellent Hiroyuki Sanada) the secret police officer interpreter who brutally stole Lomax’s youth, and stained his own.

On one work trip, Lomax meets a middle –aged, soft-spoken woman, Patti, a former nurse, on holiday. (nicely played by Nicole Kidman in a role close to her own age.) Clearly, Patti is the kind of welcoming soul that holds the healing balm that will save him.

They will fall in love and marry, and we could end there and wish them well, but for the arrival of a newspaper story of a tour guide in Ceylon who gives tours of the famous Japanese prison.

Now revenge is the thunder in this personal storm, roaring in from the past. Lomax leaves his wife and returns to Malaysia to seek closure, carrying with him a knife he has kept from his prison days.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky, an Australian writer/director (“Burning Man,” “Better Than Sex”) shot the film in Britain, Thailand and Australia. He succeeds well in putting us down in an ancient hell, and making us feel the heat.

Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote the very good screenplay based on Eric Lomax’s book. Much has been written that the film makers embroidered, for dramatic purposes, some of the details in Lomax’s book. It’s a movie, gentlemen, and we loved it, thank you very much. Lomax, who died in 2011 at 93, had little to say about that.

Cinematographer Garry Phillips has worked with Firth and Kidman before, and his scenes on the Coast of England and the hellish caves of Thailand are the work of a craftsman.

In the dark torture room, the methods of persuasion, difficult to watch are ancient, but our CIA and NSA, to their collective shame, clearly paid attention and did their homework.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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