THE RAILWAY MAN. Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgaard. Directed by Jonathan Teplitsky. 116 minutes.Rated M (Mature themes and violence).
A film that can be recommended – with the caution that it has many harrowing moments.
The advertising for the film seems to indicate that this is a film about the Thai-Burma railway during World War II. It is, but it is much more than that. The main action takes place during the 1980s.
The film opens with a group of ageing former soldiers sitting in a veterans club in a Scottish town by the sea. One of the characters is Eric Lomax, a veteran of the Thai-Burma railway. But, he is also a railway man in the present, a love for trains, a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of the intricacies of British rail, stations, times, timetables, possibilities for connections. He suddenly rushes out of the club telling the other men that he has a puzzle to solve.
There is a flashback to one of his trips, his missing a connection but working out another, explaining this to the rather quiet and bemused woman who is sitting opposite him in the train. They begin a conversation, he giving information of the history of the town about which she is talking. There is something of an attraction but he has to hurry from the train for his connection. He realises later that he is drawn to her and calculates that he would be able to meet the train she had told him about at Edinburgh station. There is an attraction, love, and a wedding.
In the early months of their wedding, Eric has a nightmare, his adult self back in the prison camp, being hustled into the black hole. He wakes screaming which terrifies his wife, Patti. But he cannot communicate anything of his war experiences to her.
The screenplay, based on the Eric Lomax’s book about his experiences, introduces one of his friends from the camp, Finlay, who is able to take her through his version and memories of the experiences. This begins a series of flashbacks to Eric during the fall of Singapore, the Japanese round-up, the cramming of prisoners on the trains, arrival at the site of the building of the railway as well as many scenes in the camp, the brutal work in the heat, the humiliation of the officers, the beatings. Eric is able to build a radio from scavenged parts which give some contact to the outside world for the prisoners. But this is short lived.
Eric has developed a hatred of the Japanese, a brooding hatred which he shares with Finlay. And the question is raised: can Eric goes through life with the bitterness and the hatred?
The latter part of the film deals with Eric and his emotional dilemmas in the 1980s, including a visit to the site of the camp and an encounter with the translator in the camp. Since the story of Eric Lomax and his book have been quite widely publicised, it is not revealing too much to say that the theme of the latter part of the film is a purging of hatred and a movement towards reconciliation. ‘The hatred must stop.’
The film has been written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, writer for many films of Michael Winterbottom and of the Catholic-themed story of a little boy and his visions of saints, Millions. It has been directed in classic style by Australian, Jonathan Teplitsky (Burning Man). Colin Firth has proven himself a strong and substantial actor over the years and his interpretation of Eric Lomax offers one of his best performances, both direct and subtle. Nicole Kidman plays his wife, unglamorous but with charm and empathy. Stellan Starsgaard is Finlay. And Hiroyuki Sanada has some very strong and moving moments as the translator, Nagase.
Because the Thai-Burma railway played a significant role in Australian involvement in World War II, the film is of particular interest. But, its theme of cruelty and torture, its theme of bitterness and feelings of vengeance, its theme of asking when hatred must stop and reconciliation be fostered, make it a very moving and significant film.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out 20th December 2013.