THE RAILWAY MAN Review

The Railway Man is a weight of a film. It is heavy with burden, heavy with guilt, heavy in theme and deeply entrenched in a story so stricken with all of these attributes that the resulting cinematic take on it could not help but to swim around in these deep, dark emotions. It is a disturbing tale, but it is one that is more of a straightforward nature than any film I've seen recently that exists outside the big-budget wheelhouse. We typically see these smaller films as opportunities for filmmakers to say something more than what you might find on a classroom poster or more than an excuse to simply make a bunch of noise and draw obvious conclusions from years of archetypes and cliches that still entertain the masses, but are not enough for people as immersed in film as the makers themselves or the strong army of cinephiles that populate the internet. Sometimes though, a story is strong enough on its own bearings that there is no need to come up with a fresh way to convey it or imply larger themes or ideas beyond that of the basic story and Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man is one of those films. Not that the way in which Teplitzky has chosen to tell the story isn't effective in enhancing the already engaging story, but anyone who could provide solid-enough direction while armed with this narrative and these actors could have likely pulled off a win, it only helps that Teplitzky and his screenwriters, Frank Cottrell Boyce (Millions) and Andy Paterson who adapted Eric Lomax's autobiography, were able to get out of their own way and let the story speak for itself. I sometimes find it difficult to describe what makes a film of this straightforward yet compelling nature exactly that, but in doing so I've found I try to over-analyze and do the same thing I'm happy the filmmakers didn't do. That being said, The Railway Man is an engaging story featuring world-class actors and a high-brow look that keeps us entranced by its beauty, torn by its brutality and unwavering due to its strong resolution that you can't argue with because it's true, but is still somehow able to cover if not heal the scar tissue left behind by years of hate and a yearning for retribution that is tucked away by the harsh reality of how the world works.

Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) travels back to a place he was sure he'd never want to return.
Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) was a British Army officer during World War II who was sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in 1942 and suffered indescribable brutality when it was discovered he and his colleagues had built a secret radio they thought might bring them some kind of hope. Lomax was one of thousands of prisoners of war who were forced to work on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway. It's his experiences under the harsh treatment of these young Japanese officers and in particular the translator, Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), that leave him traumatized for years after even when a beautiful woman enters his life and elevates him to a place emotionally he likely feels he'd never been before or could ever reach. This is when we are introduced to Lomax in Teplitzky's film as he sits in the Veteran's club in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England in 1980. He sits around with several of his old soldier buddies, including Finlay or "Uncle" (Stellan Skarsgård), as they tease him about his fascination with trains and the fact he finds joy in looking through railway time tables. He lets their pestering go by without a hint of acknowledgement, but instead delves into a story that he believes many in his company will find interesting. He tells them of how he met a woman on a train, someone who he was immediately taken with and whose conversation was pleasing on the most basic of human levels. He knows not what to do it seems with this simple pleasure until such a question is posed and in response he hurriedly gets up from his seat and races to meet Patti (Nicole Kidman) on the platform where he hopes she will be arriving. Less about being subtle, Eric gives into his intense emotion and both Firth and Kidman give themselves over to a credible, almost improvised relationship that we might not buy into were it relayed to us by less capable hands. Their is a palpable chemistry between the actors though and they give the first fifteen minutes or so of the film a completely different feel than what I expected so that when the surface begins to be scratched and we get a hint at the demons Lomax has kept at bay we are all the more intrigued.

My main concern with this film was that I would have nothing much to say given the straightforwardness of its story and direction, but there is an element of the way the story is told that makes it more noteworthy than if we were to just stick with the elder Lomax and receive the story through dialogue scenes of therapy sessions or quick flashbacks that don't fully flesh out the impact of the events that influence the man Eric has become. What Teplitzky chose to do instead was tell a parallel story of sorts that give the events that took place in the early 40's a direct correlation to the continued PTSD that has essentially left Eric cut off from the world until Patti came along. In this earlier setting the locations are grand, the extras are real and the substance makes the words the older incarnations of these characters utter more profound. As embodied by Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) the young Eric is not necessarily one you would label as a leader, but an honorable young man who takes the incentive of the wrongdoing by his captors and the desperation of his fellow soldiers to mean that he must do whatever he can to help and utilize his skill and intelligence in a way that might provide them a link to their outside world giving them that hope that there might be a chance of life beyond the building of the railway. While the film certainly takes on a prestigious aura as we watch Firth and Kidman exchange dialogue and as Firth makes his way in a dream-like state to the torture chamber where he resists with all terror to be taken back in there, it is in these flashbacks that the real merit of the story comes through and the real impact of the events are felt. The retrospective scenes are fine as they set up a nice tone that contrasts the more in your face flashbacks, but Irvine is such a meek presence as the young Lomax that we don't suspect the bravery he displays. In one instance where Skarsgård's Uncle recounts the horror story that was the Japanese reaction to them finding out about he and Eric's secret radio he declares, "I think it is the bravest thing I've ever seen," and as the image of Irvine's face flashes upon the screen giving his captor the nod of a go-ahead to punish him for their crime rather than anyone else we see the look of a man completely selfless and willing to take the pain of a thousand men so that those around him who he believes don't deserve it, will not have to deal with it. It is this kind of high-caliber acting that gives way to The Railway Man being more than just a simple "based on a true story" period picture.

The younger version of Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) readies himself for war in The Railway Man.
While the main conflict of the film comes not from the wrongdoing done to Eric and his fellow soldiers, but instead these are the great motivators of our story that see many of them die and some of them survive to go on and live long, prosperous lives only to remain haunted by those events and the slave-like treatment they were subject to. We are introduced to the main conflict quite early, the idea that Eric cannot open up to Patti, that he cannot fill her in on what makes him so distant, what curses him to walk around at night or throw him into fits of rage or panic. It is a state of being she cannot live with and in seeking out the truth of what he experienced and if there is a way to help him she finds out the truth of the matter in that the translator, the man who allowed the torturing of Eric to go on and continue despite his higher intelligence and clear knowledge of what was right and wrong, was still alive. Patti is then faced with the decision of letting Eric know or keeping it a secret from him, unsure of what he might do with such information. As it goes, the final hour of the film sees Firth going out on his own, leaving the rest of the principle cast behind both in real time and in his past so that he may confront what has haunted him for decades. This is not so much a wrong choice as it is an odd one that allows the film to feel like it is slowing down much sooner than it should and at a time in the film when we would typically think of it as really beginning to ramp up. The interaction between Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada as the older Nagase is thrilling and intense and almost a bid by Firth to tell those out there he could do the whole Liam Neeson, bad ass thing too if they want him for it, but his performance never takes us out of the type of film this is and in keeping things in line and allowing the dialogue to do the work he allows the story to breathe and the impact of its truthfulness to be fully felt in the closing moments that offer a simple yet genuinely touching sentiment that could speak to individuals everywhere, "sometime the hating has to stop." The Railway Man is a small, moving film with some exceptional editing that won't make too many waves or even garner that much acclaim despite some truly fine work from Irvine, but it is a story that deserved to have its moment on the silver screen and I only feel all the more enlightened and thankful for experiencing it and for knowing the stories of these real-life individuals and what their lives left with the world.