Title: The Railway Man
Director: Jonathan Teplitsky
Major Players: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine
Out Of Five? 4
Remember Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the search for Bin Laden? It was accused of being pro-torture, because of its now-notorious waterboarding scene, and never lived it down. Which makes me wonder if Jonathan Teplitsky’s The Railway Man will receive the same treatment. Somehow, I don’t think so.
Some of the film’s pre-publicity focuses on Eric Lomax’s (Colin Firth) search for revenge, after being tortured on the Death Railway in Thailand during World War II. What it plays down is that the torture is what we now call waterboarding. And the scenes are far more prolonged and more graphic than anything Kathryn Bigelow showed us. But, despite favourable reviews from the Toronto Film Festival, the film isn’t being pitched as an Oscar contender. Maybe that’s the difference …….
Former POW Eric Lomax is a railway enthusiast and unexpectedly finds love on one of his many railway journeys around the British countryside. But new wife Patti (Nicole Kidman) discovers after their whirlwind romance that he’s still tormented by his wartime experiences. When she discovers that the man responsible for what happened to him in the Japanese camp has also survived, she realises that Eric has to confront his past before they can have any real chance of a happy marriage.
While it’s set in a combination of World War II and some years afterwards, the film is full of themes that are equally applicable to today. I’ve already mentioned the torture of prisoners, but there’s also the treatment of PTSD sufferers: it’s not a term that Lomax and his fellow soldiers would have recognised, but that is what he – and at least one other of them – clearly has.
Then there’s reconciliation, which seems to be the theme of the week with the release of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. And that is the theme of the film, not revenge, a theme that provides the film with a moving ending that is faithful to Eric Lomax’s original book. He confronts the Japanese translator complicit in his torture and, over time, they are reconciled and become close friends. It’s a painful path, but one that ultimately brings them both peace.
As Lomax, Colin Firth turns in a dignified and thoughtful performance. There isn’t another actor who comes close to him in expressing pain on screen purely through their eyes. In the flashbacks to the Death Railway, he is portrayed by Jeremy Irvine, who apparently refused to use a stand-in for the torture scenes and did them himself. He’s a good enough likeness for you to imagine him maturing into Colin Firth’s Lomax, but even more impressive is the way he’s captured the older character’s speech patterns.
A serious and sincere film, The Railway Man still leaves you with hope. It may be set around 70 years ago, but it is totally relevant in its themes and, while it’s a very British film, its appeal is universal.
The Railway Man is released in cinemas on Friday, 10 January.