The Railway Man
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgård
Rated R for disturbing prisoner of war violence
1 hr. and 56 min.
The Railway Man is a movie that, like its protagonist Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), will struggle to survive and live another day with an American audience. Why, you ask? Well, for one thing, the story is so dark and brutal, just reading the film’s description will scare most people off. WWII, Japanese torture, PTSD. Not very entertaining.
Second, it’s a small British film being launched amid expensive American films such as Spiderman 2, Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past. When one must decide between war and human torture or comic book material, which seems the most likely choice? While I admit the subject matter is tough to watch — beatings, starvation, waterboarding — what makes this film compelling is the story itself. A true story no less about Lomax, who barely survived a Japanese WWII prisoner-of-war camp where he helped build what became known as the Death Railway between Bangkok, Thailand and Burma (now Myanmar).
It was 1942. Thousands of British soldiers and other Allied troops were captured when Japanese forces overran Singapore. Churchill called it “The greatest disaster ever to have befallen the British Empire.” Lomax, a 21-year-old signals engineer and railway enthusiast, was one of those prisoners.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky starts the story decades later and uses flashbacks to piece together what was, what is, and what is to come.
40 years after the war, Lomax marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), whom he accidentally meets on a train. But on their wedding night, she discovers a dark truth about her husband. He has nightmares that literally throw him out of bed. He’s angry. He won’t talk about his past. She is forced to ask one of his war comrades, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), about what they endured in Thailand.
Finlay shares their story and reluctantly gives Patti some important information. He has learned that one of their tormentors, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), is alive and actually working at the war museum in Thailand where he and Lomax were tortured. After he shares his discovery with Patti, she must choose whether or not to share it with her husband.
There are a lot of moving parts to this film. Teplitzky has done this intentionally, I think, to give the viewer a sense of Lomax’s own chaos. Trying to live in the present and the past, trying to appear as a quiet English gentleman obsessed with English history and railways even as he suffers from flashbacks.
Academy award-winning actors Firth and Kidman painstakingly re-create the dynamics between their gentle, more amiable selves and their dark underworlds. It’s a matter of understatement on one hand and brutality on the other. For both, the prime communication takes place with facial expressions that probe, hide and fight off a more chaotic reality.
But it’s the ending that makes this film not only compelling but, given our current experiences with soldiers and PTSD, highly contemporary. When war ends, does it really end? Do dreams of death and revenge really point to something else? A need for love and forgiveness? A desire for self-expression and human contact? And when two opposing forces, both damaged by the same war, come back together, what fires result?
Which is why this film carries great weight. The Railway Man, like soldiers who suffer from war trauma, is easy to overlook, and what we peek at makes us afraid and willing to turn a blind eye. Still, Teplitzky and Lomax seem to be asking one of the crucial questions of our generation: When you people someone to war and they come back wounded, what are you going to do about it? The Railway Man challenges us as an audience to sit up and pay attention to a horrible truth and the road one man took to survive and forgive.