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The Railway Man

April 18, 2014
The Railway Man

There are few World War II movies as acclaimed and memorable as The Bridge on the River Kwai, and few so galling to the men who lived through the events it describes. The Thailand-Burma railway was aptly named the “Death Railway” by the prisoners of war who worked on it, including British signals officer Eric Lomax. A portion of the harrowing ordeal he put down in his autobiography is now put on film in The Railway Man, which should help right that cinematic wrong.

We begin decades after the end of the war, when Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) on a train, and to her surprise she’s more interested in her itinerary than anything else. Lomax was a railway enthusiast — he quickly denies being a trainspotter — from a very young age, always interested in the engineering and development of rail systems. A few months later, they’re married.

But Lomax also suffers from what we’d now call post-traumatic stress disorder. He wakes up screaming at night, and lapses into flashbacks during the day. Patti knows he was taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942, but Lomax won’t say anything after that. His old comrade-at-arms, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), fills in some details, though.

The British had considered a rail route from Thailand to Burma in the colonial days, but had decided against building it. Under the best of conditions, railway construction was miserable work undertaken by the poorest immigrant labor. To cross the Indochinese jungles and mountains would require an army of slaves, which the occupying Japanese had with their POWs. The young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) had it worse: in order to buoy the men’s spirits, he constructs a radio to hear Allied news broadcasts. When it is found, he is taken by the Kempetai and tortured by one of their interrogators, Nagase (Ishida Tanroh).

Obviously, he survived the war, but was horribly scarred by his ordeal, as were so many other soldiers. But Lomax is offered a chance few ever got: an older Nagase (Sanada Hiroyuki) is still alive, and leading tours of the old POW camp. After some prodding, Lomax returns to Thailand to confront his torturer.

Firth does an excellent job portraying Lomax in the present, immersing himself in this shell of a man. Irvine may have the harder task, matching Firth’s mannerisms even under some incredible duress. But it’s the dyad between Firth and Sanada that brings the story’s meaning into focus.

Screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson wisely limit discussion to Lomax’ interrogation, and omit his his trial and incarceration. Not that the later experiences were any less traumatic or important, but the immediacy of the film — director Jonathan Teplitzky pulls no punches in depicting the torture — makes it harder to endure than reading the same material printed on the pages of Lomax’ memoirs.

Unfortunately, most victims of post-traumatic stress, whether combat-related or not, will never get the opportunity for closure Lomax did. Patti Lomax was surely supportive of her husband, and that may have itself made some difference in his recovery. It’s a shame that we see precious little of this dynamic, though, and that Kidman is reduced to a mere audience surrogate to lead us into this story. While inspiring, the part of Eric Lomax’ story we get to see is less than representative of the problems our own returning veterans face today.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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