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British Film Review: The Railway Man
‘Tis the season for reconciliation. At the cinema, that is. We’ve already had Philomena forgiving the nuns who sold her son for adoption and Nelson Mandela has just taken the walk to freedom. And now, slipping in quietly behind them, is The Railway Man, on a journey into his wartime past.
Railway enthusiast and former POW Eric Lomax unexpectedly falls in love while on a train journey and marries after a whirlwind courtship. But his new wife Patti soon realises that he’s tormented by his wartime experiences. With the help of one of his old army colleagues, she discovers that the man haunting him is still alive and holds the key to Eric coming to terms with what happened to him.
Like many other films at the moment, this is based on a true story: a comparatively small one which addresses some very big issues. And a World War II story that is full of contemporary resonances.
In many ways, The Railway Man picks up where David Lean’s Bridge On The River Kwai left off. The war is over, the prisoners from the Death Railway are at home and, to outsiders at least, the stiff upper lip still prevails among them. This is a world that has yet to hear the phrase PTSD, let alone understand what it means – especially for them.
The film tells Lomax’s story through a series of flashbacks, each one another piece in the jigsaw that eventually comes together to reveal the full horror of his experiences. In the camp, he manages to put together a radio to find out what’s happening in the outside world. But when the Japanese guards discover it, they are convinced it’s a transmitter and he is brutally tortured to extract a confession.
We see little of the initial beatings he suffers, just the after effects, but we’re spared nothing of his torture. It is, in today’s parlance, waterboarding. And the scenes are lengthier and more explicit than anything we were shown in Zero Dark Thirty. Will it cause a similar outcry? I’m not so sure.
This, perhaps, is the most obvious parallel with more recent conflicts but, at its heart, The Railway Man is a film about reconciliation and forgiveness. Lomax returns to Thailand to confront his memories and the Japanese translator, Nagase, who was responsible for his prolonged torture. Nagase is a tour guide at the one-time POW camp, now a war museum, in an effort to atone for his past. When they meet again, it resurrects shocking memories and emotions for both of them, but it’s also their first step towards finding some sort of personal peace.
As Lomax, Colin Firth yet again shows he is the master of English repressed emotion: nobody else portrays pain and grief with his eyes quite so well. The only flickers of humour in what is otherwise a very sombre film come in his initial meetings with his future wife, Patti. His encyclopaedic knowledge of railway timetables and fascination with detail in general, is distinctly reminiscent of Corrie’s Roy Cropper (also a train enthusiast). The scenes between him and a compassionately low-key Nicole Kidman paint a convincing picture of a couple who love each other but who are nearly driven apart by his memories.
The younger Lomax is played by Jeremy Irvine, who insisted on doing the torture scenes himself, rejecting the idea of a stand-in. Visually, you can imagine him growing up into Colin Firth’s Lomax but he does more than that, capturing the speech rhythms of the older man perfectly. It’s an intelligent piece of acting from one of our most promising young actors.
Although The Railway Man is a serious, if not solemn, film, it is ultimately uplifting. Lomax and his torturer, Nagase, reach an understanding and, as the credits roll, we learn they became lifelong friends. Honour has been satisfied, by both the Japanese and the Englishman.
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