The Railway Man (2013) Movie Review

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.

The Railway Man

 

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.

Colin Firth & Nicole Kidman

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.

Jeremy IrvineThe 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

CLICK HERE To read my book review of The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.

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This movie review was published in the May 10 issue of Asian American Press.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

17 thoughts on “The Railway Man (2013) Movie Review”

    1. Athira,

      Do go and watch this. It has its flaws, but overall I think it’s worthwhile to be aware of this episode in history… and yes, esp. with CF. 😉

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  1. It sounds like some of the flaws of the book translated into the movie too. Interesting. Nonetheless, the movie seems like its pretty good, plus, Colin Firth, that generally makes it good right there 🙂

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    1. Stefanie,

      Yes, I’m afraid so, book flaws into film. But I always think, under a different director and writer maybe it would be portrayed quite differently. It would be great to have Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) direct it.

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  2. I saw “Bridge on the River Kwai” when it first was in theaters. I remember it remarkably well, and it may well be that I responded to it as I did precisely because that “summer camp” atmosphere was something I could recognize from my own days at camp.

    If I were asked to describe Lean’s film now, just from my memories, I’d call it “lush” and “romantic”, the same qualities that I remember in “Dr. Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” As you rightly point out, the experiences of real people in those very real times were different — sometimes radically so.

    I don’t know how we get the younger generation to pay attention to what actually happened in the past, but it’s so important that we do. The rising tide of anti-semitism, intolerance and general stupidity in what have traditionally been some of the most revered schools in the US (Harvard, Vassar, etc.) show there is much work to be done. Sometimes, the administration is in need of a little education, themselves.

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    1. Linda,

      Hope you’ll have a chance to watch this. I’ll be most curious to know what you think, esp. in comparison to Bridge on the River Kwai. I’m just concerned that this chapter of WWII has been so ignored in the West. I’m sure there are political factors involved.

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    1. Litlove,

      Oh I’m sure the film touches different people in different ways… especially the older generation. That’s why I was sad to see almost all the viewers in the theatre were white-haired. I think this story needs to be told to younger generations or it will be buried for good. Hope you’ll have a chance to see it too, despite its flaws.

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  3. This still hasn’t shown up here. Ugh. But I’m glad they’ve filmed this story for multiple reasons — certainly, a reminder of the war and all it was. History is so important and things seem to move so fast and so shallowly these days that I’m not sure other generations get it. Perhaps I feel this way because it was my father’s war — but I think it is more because it was such a turning point in our history and in how the world is now. But also, important because the idea of honoring forgiveness and personal redemption through forgiveness is so important. I’m still eager to see it, holding in my head the imperfections that you have mentioned. And besides, it’s Colin Firth!

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    1. Jeanie,

      Definitely go see it if it ever arrives Lansing. I remember watching an interview wherein CF admits how difficult it was for him to play this role since he’d had none such experience to relate to. I think the production is worthwhile, turning the lesser known book onto the big screen. I feel there’s such a big ‘generation gap’ nowadays, as you said, ‘things seem to move so fast and so shallowly’. But I like to dream of a scenario and wonder what the film will be like under another writer/director’s hands, e.g. Steve McQueen (the artful 12 Years A Slave).

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  4. Ah, we saw this film back in January. I agree with your assessment, but I was so moved by the whole issue that I wrote a post – not so much on the film but on people who can forgive, who can “love” those who trespass against them. This is probably my biggest passion … to not take revenge. So, I agree, stories like this need to be told again, and again, and again. We are becoming more “civilised” I believe – and this is the ultimate in “civilised” behaviour but oh dear it’s slow.

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