POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 25, 2014
What place is there nowadays for a solid, old-fashioned movie about war, remembrance and reconciliation? That question occurred to me while watching "The Railway Man," an unabashedly stodgy, high-minded film in the David Lean tradition (without the grandeur), starring Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, a British army officer who served and suffered during World War II.
The film, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky ("Burning Man") from a screen adaptation of Lomax's 1995 memoir, tells the true story of his brutal treatment by the Japanese after his capture in Singapore in 1942 and his determination to come to terms with it decades later. (Lomax was 93 when he died in 2012.)
The movie alludes to two inspirations: "Brief Encounter" (its underdeveloped love story) and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (its tale of forced labor by Allied prisoners of war). If "The Railway Man," like many films about combat, is reflexively anti-war, it unabashedly celebrates the nobility and courage of British soldiers. That's the way it is with all but the most nihilistic movies contemplating the horrors of war.
The role of Lomax is divided between Firth, who plays him as a mature veteran in the 1980s, afflicted with severe, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, and Jeremy Irvine ("War Horse") as his younger self, a fresh-faced soldier who stands up to the enemy and is put through hell. Their physical resemblance is just enough that you buy it.
|‘THE RAILWAY MAN'
Opens Friday at Kahala 8
Firth gives a reserved, compelling performance of a tormented man whose experience as a prisoner helping the enemy build a railroad hasn't dampened his boyish enthusiasm for trains. But behind Lomax's stiff-upper-lip facade are wartime memories he is too frightened to confront.
In protracted flashbacks, Lomax, while helping construct the Burma Railway under slave-labor conditions, secretly assembles a crude radio through which the prisoners receive morale-boosting news. When the radio is discovered, Lomax bravely takes the blame. But his nightmare at the hands of Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), a sadistic Japanese interrogator, begins. At first, he is subjected to furious beatings. Later, he endures a precursor of waterboarding that involves a hose attached to his mouth. Somehow he survives, although these gruesome scenes make you wonder how that was possible.
The moral crux of the movie revolves around the news four decades later that Nagase (portrayed as an older man by Hiroyuki Sanada) is working as a tour guide in a Japanese war museum. With the idea of killing him, Lomax visits the museum and reveals his identity and undertakes his own interrogation.
"The Railway Man" begins awkwardly with the dying Lomax mumbling a fragment of a poem that never amounts to much. From this deathbed scene, the film dips back to 1980 and a British veterans club where Lomax regales his friends with his story of recently meeting Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nurse who was sitting opposite him in a train compartment. They soon marry.
Although Kidman is radiant, her character is just a catalyst for Lomax's recovery and redemption. Besides being an empathetic helpmate and angel of compassion who gently coaxes him to confront his demons, she barely exists.
The early scenes are a confusing hodgepodge that jumps around in time. Only after Patti discovers that her husband suffers from terrifying nightmares does the story take shape. When Patti pressures his friend and former Army buddy Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) for an explanation, he breaks the veterans' code of silence and reluctantly informs her of their wartime experiences.
In the early scenes, Firth's eyes convey a profound hurt barely camouflaged by a sardonic joviality. Later in the film, they signal a cold, murderous hatred, and even later, something more complex. His performance is all the more convincing for its understatement. That modesty prevents "The Railway Man" from turning mawkishly sentimental once Lomax embraces the concept of forgiveness, and you can believe it's possible.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times