Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in a moving story of redemption and forgiveness
We all know war is hell but there are very few films that deal with the long-term effects, not just years but decades later.The experiences of Allied POWs under the Japanese in World War II has been covered numerous times in film, perhaps most famously by David Lean in Bridge on the River Kwai and by Nagisha Oshima in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence. However no one has really covered the long-term effects on those that survived. The anger, the guilt and the hatred that stayed with them for decades afterwards and the effect that had not only on them but on their loved ones.
The Railway Man is based upon the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was taken prisoner by the Japanese. It tells the true story of not only his experiences building the Burma Railway under the Japanese but also the psychological damage he suffered for decades afterwards. The film takes place in two different time periods and intercuts between the two as the film progresses, gradually filling out more of Eric’s ordeal as a POW.
Firth and Sanada are especially effective as men at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
The first time period covers Eric’s capture after the fall of Singapore until his rescue by Allied troops towards the end of the war. The second time period covers Eric’s marriage to Patricia Wallace in the early 80s and his attempts to confront his past and find a way to deal with the psychological demons that still haunted him. The film begins with the older Eric, played superbly by Colin Firth, meeting Patti, played by Nicole Kidman, on a train journey. This chance encounter blossoms into love and eventually marriage and is a charming sequence that could almost come from a romantic movie of the past. In fact the characters even make reference to Brief Encounter at one point, as if to drive the point home.
Of course this idyll doesn’t last as Patti begins to appreciate just how disturbed and traumatised her new husband is. It’s her attempts to discover exactly what happened to Eric that result in many of the flashbacks that fill out his backstory and she is essentially the audience’s way into the narrative. Her task isn’t helped by the survivors inability to talk about their experiences and only Eric’s friend Finlay, played by Stellan Skarsgard, appears able to talk about it. Although quite why he is Swedish is never really explained. However, even Findlay doesn’t know the full story and is unable to completely fill in the blanks, especially with regards to Eric’s torture at the hands of the Japanese. These scenes are revealed in the second half of the film, as Eric travels to Thailand to return to the camp he was held in and confront one of his torturers.
The flashbacks cover the POWs experiences working on the Burma Railway and whilst not unnecessarily graphic, the film doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the conditions and the brutality of the Japanese. The irony of course is that Eric, a railway enthusiast, is forced to work on a railway that was considered by the British to be too difficult and cruel to even be attempted. At one point the young Eric, played by Jeremy Irvine, points out that it would require an army of slaves, which of course is exactly what the Japanese now had at their disposal. Initially Eric and some of his comrades are spared the worst of the atrocities because they are engineers but their attempts to build and conceal a radio lead to them falling foul of the Japanese. Eric deliberately takes the blame for the radio and is thus punished and then tortured for information by his captors.
The Railway Man is a powerful film about the redeeming nature of forgiveness.
The interrogation and torture of Eric is made worse by the cultural gulf that separates the Japanese and the British. Not only do the Japanese not respect the British POWs because they surrendered, even though they were ordered to, but they also don't understand their desire to survive. The film constantly returns to the themes of honour and bravery and the very different interpretations that the British and the Japanese have of those concepts. The Japanese assume that the prisoners had built the radio to communicate with Thai and Chinese resistance fighters but as Eric tries to point out, it is only a receiver and they couldn't transmit if they wanted to. In fact the prisoners had been using the radio to get news from the outside world and as the tide of the war turned, they and their fellow prisoners took strength from this news. It also meant that Eric knew more about what was happening to mainland Japan than his torturers and at one point he tells them, although of course they don't believe him. They also refuse to believe that he created a map of the railway itself, not for sabotage but purely for his own pleasure. Train spotting or rather being a train enthusiast, as Eric clarifies on a number of occasions, is clearly not a big pastime in Japan.
The scenes of Eric's torture are quite graphic and include a prolonged water-boarding session that serves as a pithy reminder that perhaps we're no better. It's worth remembering that for all the atrocities committed by Japan, their unconditional surrender was ultimately achieved through the utter decimation of their entire country and civilian population. This role reversal, which leads to a degree of understanding and ultimately forgiveness is embodied in the character of Nagase, played by Tanroh Ishida as young man and by Hiroyuki Sanada as an older one. He was actually the interpreter during Eric's torture rather than the one who was hurting him directly but perhaps because he could speak English, he became the focus of Eric's hatred. The scenes between the two older men give the film it's emotional depth during the second half, slowly building to a genuinely moving conclusion. Hiroyuki Sanada is particularly effecting as a man who bitterly regrets his actions in the past and has spent a lifetime trying to make amends. Firth is equally as good, with both men portraying different ends of the emotional spectrum - Nagase must forgive himself whilst Eric needs to let go of the hate.
The film is a co-production between Scotland and Australia, Queensland to be precise, where the camp scenes were filmed, although there are also sequences shot at the real railway in Thailand and the infamous bridge over the Kwai. The photography is gorgeous, juxtaposing Scotland with Burma and Thailand and even manages a few decent epic shots of the fall of Singapore. The cast are generally excellent, with Firth in particular playing the repressed English character with hidden depths that he does so well. Jeremy Irvine is also excellent and perfectly captures Firth's vocal and physical mannerisms which helps bridge the two stories. Nicole Kidman doesn't quite convince as Patti, partly because try as she might she could never look dowdy and her innate beauty keeps shining through. In fairness it's a hard part because she is literally the only female character in the film and was a last minute replacement when Rachel Weisz had to drop out. The film was directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and the screenplay is by Frank Cotteral Boyce, based upon Eric Lomax's autobiography, who does a good job of re-telling a story that has already been covered in a number of documentaries.
Of course even if you don't know anything about the real story, you can generally guess where the narrative is going and the conclusion is very satisfying, all the more because it's actually true. Ultimately The Railway Man is a deeply moving and powerful film about the redeeming nature of forgiveness.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.