Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, ‘The Railway Man’ has only recently made its way into North American theatres, a slow train considering the story dates back to a chapter in World War II history that has generally been ignored. It had taken Eric Lomax decades to open up and tell his story as a Japanese prisoner of war. His autobiography The Railway Man was published in 1995, half a century after his ordeal.
Noting the demographics of the audience in the theatre I was in, it is likely that the passing of a generation could mean the eventual silencing of eyewitnesses and victims, or those who have heard from them first-hand. While a movie adaptation of Eric Lomax’s autobiography is important for raising awareness of the events in the Pacific theatre during the War, the real difficulty is to attract younger viewers today to go into a movie theatre to watch it.
Of the numerous full-length features on WWII, only David Lean’s 1957 “The Bridge on the River Kwai” comes to mind for a movie that deals with this chapter in history. Eric Lomax was a young signals officer in Singapore when the British surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. He and other British soldiers were transported to Thailand to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway as slave laborers. Notoriously known as The Death Railway, the conditions there were horrendous. Many POW’s died and others were tortured. Lomax was one of them.
Having read his memoir, I find ‘The Railway Man’ a more realistic depiction of the POW’s conditions. Lean’s film where the men are portrayed in top physical shape marching to the famous whistling tune looks like a summer camp when compared to the atrocities Lomax and others had suffered. The war ended in 1945, but not the psychological torments of former POW’s.
‘The Railway Man’ begins with Lomax (Colin Firth) in 1980, a middle-aged veteran, still a railway enthusiast, encountering Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) while travelling on a train. This first part of the movie is the most enjoyable in that we see Colin Firth in his most natural and easiest demeanor, romantic yet reserved, with a dash of quirkiness. Nicole Kidman, with minimal make-up, gives an admirable understated performance. The two make good screen chemistry. Viewers will have more of their partnership in some upcoming productions.
As they chat on the train, David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ is mentioned, a life imitating art experience thus ensues except this one leads to a long-term relationship. Eric and Patti soon get married. On their honeymoon, the nightmares of Lomax’s traumatic past begin to expose. He drops on the floor wrenching from fearful flashbacks.
Observing in anguish, Patti seeks to find out more from Lomax’s fellow veteran Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) who cautions her of the scars of war and the never-ending torments. Thus leads to the second act where we see flashbacks into Lomax’s horrific POW experiences.
Jeremy Irvine puts forth an impressive effort in his portrayal of a courageous and decent young Lomax. After the radio he has made and his hand-drawn map of the railway line are discovered by his Japanese captors, the young Lomax bravely steps out to admit his involvement in order to spare his fellow soldiers the punishment. He is beaten, interrogated as a spy, and repeatedly tortured. Throughout, the young Japanese officer Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) is in full command.
The film goes back and forth in time during the bulk of the story, not roughly, but in an unbalanced way. The WWII sequences are intense, but the present day scenes exude a lethargic sense of inaction. While the talents of both Firth and Kidman can readily be tapped, the screenplay allows no further development other than the close-ups of a repressed and traumatically disturbed Lomax and a loving but exasperated Patti watching from the sideline. Here is a time when you would wish the director (Jonathan Teplitzky) and screenwriters (Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) had exerted more artistic freedom and creative energy into the film.
The plot turns a new direction as Finlay finds out that the Japanese officer Nagase (now played by Hiroyuki Sanada) who was involved in Lomax’s torture is still alive. Adding to Lomax’s burden, Finlay has pressured him to take revenge. Indeed, it is with a vengeful resolve that Lomax seeks Nagase out in a war museum in Thailand, where Nagase is a tour guide by the River Kwai, showing visitors the same prison camp wherein Lomax was once a captive.
As the torturer and the victim confront, tension rises. In the most critical moment, the murderous vengeance that Lomax has harbored is snapped. Nagase expresses genuine remorse and offers his apology to Lomax. Vengeance is thus dissolved into forgiveness.
This third act is supposedly the most moving section. Unfortunately it drags on too long, losing the power of the cathartic punch. While Firth’s performance is riveting as he enters the torture room and relives the past, the verbal exchanges between the adversaries and their ultimate reconciliation look contrived. As in the book, which leaves readers little explanation as to Lomax’s change of heart, I assume therein lies the difficulty for the screenwriters to invent a realistic and dramatic scenario.
Nonetheless, stories like this ought to be told for the understanding of historic truths and of the human heart. It just may sound like an over-simplification, but maybe the long road to reconciliation does start with a word of apology.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
This movie review was published in the May 10 issue of Asian American Press.