Jonathan Teplitzky’s four films to date constitute a body of work with a markedly split personality. His first two features, Better Than Sex and Gettin’ Square, were light-hearted farces, funny and romantic. The first was a chamber piece in which David Wenham and Susie Porter fell for each other over the course of a lazy weekend in bed. And the latter was basically a cockney crime caper transplanted to Surfer’s Paradise, with Timothy Spall lending a bit of authentic East London, gold-chained heft. Since then, however, Teplitzky’s career has changed tempo.

His last film, Burning Man, was emotional but unsentimental, and blessedly uncool. The genealogy of the filmmaker may have been visible – another love story, for starters – but the film was harsher, tougherminded. That flintiness has carried over to his latest, The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, which tells the true story of Eric Lomax (Firth). As a young man Lomax was captured by the Japanese and put to work on the Thai-Burma railway. He was also tortured, and emotionally crippled by the experience for decades afterwards.

It’s a plum role and for the director there was only one choice. “The first thing I did when I got involved was to send the script to Colin, and he came on very quickly because he loved what the film was trying to do, and in particular the character.” And Lomax is in some respects a patented Firth type: the emotionally repressed, starchy but fundamentally decent Brit. The wrinkle here is that Lomax is also a man capable of homicidal fury, an ex-POW bent on revenge. As with Burning Man, Teplitzky chops up the narrative. We hop between Lomax as a young soldier and Lomax in present day decades later, scouring train timetables at the local veteran’s club and interrogating train conductors about brake shoes. As Teplitzky puts it, “it’s about time and memory and changes in time, [so] it was important to move back and forth seamlessly between those two so that the memory of Eric’s younger self was as potent as if it was happening in the here and now.”

Lomax’s obsession with trains is therefore a neat metaphor, but one that, mercifully, isn’t belaboured. Indeed the understated approach is the name of the game throughout, most affectingly in a climactic scene in which Lomax confronts the Japanese man who tortured him as a young soldier. Teplitzky cannily casts Hiroyuki Sanada in the role, an actor typecast in his English-language films as the embodiment of grace and dignity and quiet strength – a kind of Japanese Morgan Freeman. As Teplitzky himself admits, it’s a scene that, done wrong, could very easily be pat. “We worked very hard at it. It’s so easy in a scene like that to put too many words into it, and my instincts suggested that the simpler we kept it, the more we pared it back to its bare bones, the better it would be. You want the emotion of it, and not the intellectualisation of it to take over.”

The tension when the two meet is palpable, in no small part due to how convincing Firth makes Lomax’s pathology, bordering on mania. There’s a shocking scene early on where he attacks a debt-collector with a Stanley knife, and the trancelike rage is horribly persuasive. According to the director, the uncertainty in the audience’s mind as to what might happen when Lomax and Nagase, his torturer, meet was mirrored in Lomax himself. “I asked him if he really would have killed Nagase. He said ‘yes, I would have.’” I won’t spoil what happens, but there’s an illogic, a lack of neatness to the scene that rings true. Teplitzky then gives us another, fearfully compressed version of the same scene, only this time Kidman looks on with dewy eyes; it’s a baffling move, not least in terms of pacing. Yet while it may be overkill, it’s not quite fatal. As the credits roll, the sight of Firth with eyes like hot saucers, full of bloodlust, lingers, a vivid rejoinder to the lie that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

BY HARRY WINDSOR

The Railway Manhits cinemas on Thursday December 26.

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