Haunted ex-POW confronts past in ‘Railway Man’
Is revenge really sweet? Even when one has been horribly wronged—in a wartime setting, for instance—is an eye-for-an-eye style of vengeance ever really justified? Indeed, can any amount of revenge ever compensate for the original injury? These are issues grappled with in The Railway Man, a handsome and quietly moving drama adapted from the bestselling 1995 nonfiction memoir by Eric Lomax, who, as a young British army officer, survived brutal conditions in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.
Scripted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, the film begins demurely enough, a couple of decades after the war, with no hint of the horror story at its core. Middle-aged Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a slightly fusty, eccentric, professorial type who is nuts about trains. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of British railway timetables and knows the most efficient way to get from point A to point B by train from any jumping-off place on the map of Britain.
This talent endears him to Patti (Nicole Kidman), a woman he meets by chance on a train one day heading north to Glasgow. Her interest gradually opens up the normally preoccupied Eric, and they chat for a while, but part when he reaches his stop. However, he figures out when and by which train she’ll be returning, conspires to meet her at the station, and romance blossoms. All of which is recounted in flashback by Eric to a half dozen astonished, solitary gentlemen with whom he regularly meets at a seaside cafe.
It isn’t until the night after their lovely wedding in an ancient village church that the viewer, along with Patti, gets a first glimpse of the darkness bottled up inside of Eric. Flashbacks to scenes of torture he endured in the camp begin invading his daily life, shutting him down emotionally. He refuses to discuss it with Patti, so she goes to his friend, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), from the cafe group, to get the whole story.
All of these men had been young officers in the British signal corps stationed in Singapore early in the war. When Singapore fell to the Japanese, the army of British engineers were transported to a labor camp in Thailand to hack a railroad line out of the fetid jungle into Burma. Conditions are hellish enough (and Teplitzky frames our first look at the slave labor camp, lit by torchlight, as an inferno out of Dante’s), but Eric (played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine) is singled out for special punishment when he claims responsibility after a radio receiver he, Finlay (Sam Reid), and the others cobbled together out of spare parts is discovered by the camp commanders.
Patti doesn’t know how to help Eric exorcise his demons—until Finlay learns that the Japanese interpreter, Nagase, who carried out most of the actual violence against Eric, is now operating a Memorial War Museum on the site of the old camp. Circumstances soon force Eric toward a confrontation. “We can’t sleep, we can’t love,” Finlay tells him, summing up the collective damage done to them all. Eric is convinced that for the sake of the entire group, he will have to press the matter to some resolution, one way or another.
Kidman doesn’t have much to do after her first couple of scenes, except look concerned. And while Teplitzky tries not to be gratuitous, torture scenes are always psychologically brutalizing to watch, even if filmed with some discretion. But because we identify so strongly with the soft-spoken, self-effacing complexity of both Firth and Irvine in the role of Eric, the film demands that we viewers also examine how we might react in similar circumstances.
Both Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada as the younger and elder Nagase are allowed their moments of revelation and remorse as the story plays out. How the real-life Lomax responded is now a matter of public record, giving the film a more contemplative ending than we might expect. The Railway Man doesn’t pack a wallop; instead, it invites its audience to consider our own notions of justice, morality and forgiveness.
THE RAILWAY MAN
★★★ (out of four)
With Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, and Stellan Skarsgard. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson. From the book by Eric Lomax. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. A Weinstein Company release.
Rated R. 116 minutes.