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updated: 4/17/2014 11:48 AM

Colin Firth fascinating in redemptive 'Railway Man'

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The payoff for patient moviegoers observing Jonathan Teplitzky's restrained, fact-based drama "The Railway Man" is nothing less than a cinematic act of grace.

The story begins in 1980 as an homage to David Lean's classic "Brief Encounter" when a bachelor railway nerd named Lomax (Colin Firth) meets a smart and attractive lady named Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train.

They click, and their chemistry practically blows the train's whistle. They marry and seem destined for happily-ever-after lives. Until ... (you suspected an "until" lurking in the wings, right?) Lomax begins screaming during the night, becomes irrational and distant with Patti, then almost suicidal.

We slowly discover, through too tastefully discreet flashbacks, that he had been tortured as a Japanese prisoner during WWII. Patti resolves to fight for her husband and marriage, but then a strange twist comes along.

Lomax discovers his once-young Japanese tormentor (Hiroyuki Sanada) now makes a living conducting tours through the very Singapore concentration camp where he tortured and killed Allied soldiers. Lomax packs up a military knife and goes to meet him once more.

Firth is one of those actors who can make the simple act of breathing fascinating, and his performance as the conflicted Lomax carries "Railway Man" through several dramatically sparse patches.

A near-teary-eyed Kidman pumps Patti full of quiet resolve, and when the plot veers away from her in favor of the past, the movie burns a little less brightly.

Stellan Skarsgard provides solid support as Finlay, Lomax's best friend during and after the war. "War Horse" star Jeremy Irvine nicely funnels the adult Firth as a young soldier.

I am an admitted sucker for stories of extraordinary compassion and mercy, especially the true ones. As such, "The Railway Man" is one of the most moral movies I have seen in recent years.

In its own way, this movie offers a more resonant spiritual experience than this week's more overtly faith-based drama "Heaven is for Real."

"The Railway Man" opens at the Century Centre and River East 21 in Chicago and the Evanston Century 18. Rated R for violence. 116 minutes. ★ ★ ★

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