The things in British Army officer Eric Lomax's memoir that matter most are just what conventional film drama tends to duff: grief and healing over the course of a life; the plodding misery of a marriage starved of communication; the fresh, slow turning of gears long stuck inside a quiet man. Capturing strangled interiority is one of narrative cinema's greatest challenges, so it's no surprise that to suggest the P.O.W. trauma that haunts Lomax (Colin Firth) The Railway Man borrows the visual language of much simpler hauntings. Years after World War II, Lomax marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), who doesn't know he suffered protracted torture in a Japanese prison camp. She knows something's up, though, because in the spare bedroom of their creepy old home the wardrobe flaps open and hanging inside is just one thing: Lomax's old uniform. Such ghost-story literalism reduces the actual agony suffered by the actual Lomax to movie nonsense.
The Railway Man proves more successful showing us the kinds of things movies today are successful at, namely guys doing stuff, especially in the ordeals Lomax faced at the end of the war, which we see in well-realized flashbacks. Lomax and his company are captured and forced to toil on a railroad line running from Burma to Thailand. The absorbing power of these sequences gets disrupted by the inevitable extended torture scenes. It's heartening to have a tony war film about PTSD and forgiveness; it would be grander still to have one that dedicated itself more fully to examining the courage it would take to offer that forgiveness, rather than dash its energies upon the dreary cowardice of the crime itself.