A while ago, an elderly Dutchman, for whom I had a great deal of respect, told me of the traumatic time he experienced as a child. He was held captive by the Japanese in a POW camp during the Second World War. Even though he was never personally harmed he recalled with great clarity the unbelievable amount of cruelty he witnessed inflicted on those around him by their captors. He would never forgive. He couldn’t.
One wonders what he would have thought of The Railway Man, the harrowing true story of British officer Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) captured by the Japanese during the war, forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway under extreme conditions and savagely beaten and tortured for secretly building a makeshift radio receiver in order to hear what was going on in the outside world.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Lomax, The Railway Man begins in 1960. With his plastic rimmed glasses, thick moustache, which he’ll later shave, and a healthy amount of hair combed back, Lomax appears as a genteel, mild mannered, school teacher. “I’m not a train spotter,” he explains, “I’m a railway enthusiast.” It’s while following his hobby of riding trains up and down the country he has a chance meeting in a carriage with a young woman called Patti (Nicole Kidman). “You were an unexpected bonus,” Patti tells Lomax at the end of the journey. They then shake hands and part. But, as Lomax explains later to a group of friends, “I’ve fallen in love.” And with that, he contrives a coincidental meeting on a station platform where he knows Patti will soon be arriving. “It’s not entirely a coincidence,” he admits to the young woman after pretending to be surprised. “It’s not entirely a surprise,” Patti returns.
At first, their marriage seems perfectly fine, until the nightmares return. Lomax continues to replay vivid scenes of torture as he dreams of a certain Japanese soldier following him around, ordering him about and leading him towards a certain, dark room where presumably something inexplicable is going to happen. The nightmares leave Lomax not simply in a pool of sweat; the man is left reeling on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night as though in excruciating pain; a psychological trauma he experiences night after night.
What follows is a lengthy flashback relating the events of the man’s time as a young officer (Jeremy Irvine). We see when he was captured by the Japanese and witness what they did to him when confronted with the crime of building that radio.
But something happens. A friend and fellow officer who shared those years with Lomax during the war (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers a newspaper article showing that one of Japanese officers who was especially cruel to Lomax is still alive and acting as a tourist guide on the Thai-Burma Railway. With the encouragement of his wife, Lomax journeys to the other side of the world to finally face his captor on equal terms.
True to the film’s themes and tone, The Railway Man is sometimes a tough watch, but it’s also a largely rewarding one, made all the more watchable due to the fine and somewhat restrained performances from its three leads, Firth, Kidman and Skarsgard, plus solid support from Irvine as the young Lomax. Cruelty and torture are never easy subjects to successfully film or witness in a mainstream movie that exists mostly to entertain, yet The Railway Man efficiently achieves its aim by making the unpalatable easier to digest, as illustrated during the savage, animalistic beating of Lomax by the Japanese with sticks and canes. The sound of the beating and the screams fade, replaced by David Hirschfelder’s rising orchestral soundtrack while the camera centers on mostly showing the facial reaction of fellow prisoners and not the beating itself. “No one would believe what you did to us,” Lomax will later tell the Japanese officer (Hiroyuki Sanada).
In truth, the confrontation between the British and Japanese officer years after the event does not occur in the film in the way it actually happened. The film suggests Lomax made a surprise visit while looking for revenge, where in reality there was correspondence between the two before any such meeting took place. For some audiences, knowing the difference between the imagined and the reality during the film’s third act may be a tough hurdle to climb, but after investing almost two hours of screen time leading up to the eventual confrontation, an effective payoff requires a certain amount of drama and conflict. Regardless, the end result is the same. Sometimes the hating has to stop and forgiveness becomes everything.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 116 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)