The Railway Man review: a derailment on the line
Almost entirely ignores the amazing aspect of this true story that makes it worth telling, and even the very good performances point us in another direction than the intended one.
I’m “biast” (pro):
like the cast; enjoy stories about WWII
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
The Railway Man starts out like a sweet little romance, when Colin Firth meets Nicole Kidman, somewhere near Edinburgh in 1980, on a train he’s only on because his encyclopedic knowledge of train schedules is allowing him to compensate for an unexpected delay in his travel plans. “I’m not a trainspotter,” he assures her — and us — not that most prototypical of British nerds; “I’m a railway enthusiast.” Later, he is able to contrive a second meeting with her because of his, yes, trainspotting superpower. Soon, they are getting married. Though not on a train.
Okay, here’s the thing. The Railway Man is not a sweet little romance. It’s a story about PTSD — though from a time before it was called that — and an urge for revenge that turns into a desire for reconciliation and forgiveness. The forgiveness thing is part of what earned the true memoir by Eric Lomax — the guy Firth is playing here — its acclaim (it won the NCR Book Award and the PEN/Ackerley Prize for autobiography), and since South Africa was so incredibly successful with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid ended, it’s been a hot topic among political and culture geeks. The notion that we petty, violent human monkeys are capable of laying aside our trauma and forgiving those who have done us extraordinary wrongs is a remarkable one… all the more so because it actually sometimes seems possible to pull off.
The major problem with The Railway Man The Movie is that it almost entirely ignores this amazing thing that makes the story worth telling.
The script, by Frank Cottrell Boyce (Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Code 46) and Andy Paterson, takes probably too long in setting everything up and yet also, weirdly, seems to overlook some dramatically important things. The first half of the film flips back and forth between Eric in 1980 and the much younger Eric (Jeremy Irvine: Great Expectations, Now Is Good) in Singapore in 1942, when as a communications officer in the British Army, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese as they captured the city. In 1980, older Eric is having fits and behaving in odd ways, such as physically attacking bill collectors who come to the door, things that we today recognize as PTSD flashbacks set off by stress. (Firth [Gambit, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy] is a tad too young to be playing the 60ish Lomax, but he’s very good at balancing manly reticence regarding talking about emotions and letting us see Eric’s terrible pain.) Still, to our eyes, this all looks very sudden: Was he having such violent episodes before, or is this a new development? If Patti, his new wife, has witnessed anything like this prior to the first one that ends up onscreen, on their actual wedding day, we have no indication of it. We are able to begin to suppose that Eric had a Bad War, thanks to the narrative flashbacks, but poor Patti! Is she suddenly wondering what she has gotten herself in to by marrying this guy?
Poor Kidman (Just Go with It, Nine), too. She does the best she can with what develops into little more than the standard Supportive Noble Wife role — she earnestly seeks help and advice from Eric’s friend and fellow veteran Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård: Nymphomaniac, Thor: The Dark World), but while they were in the same POW camp together, there are things that Eric hasn’t even told Finlay about what happened to him.
We get to see what happened to Eric, and the 1942 sequences are the most powerful in the film… though perhaps not always in ways intended. Eric and his fellow Brits (young Finlay is played by Sam Reid [Anonymous]) are forced into slave labor building the notorious Burma-Siam Railway — the one that would later become infamous thanks to the film The Bridge on the River Kwai — and Eric’s railway enthusiasm gets him into trouble with their captors. Bad enough that they discovered the radio he jury-rigged to hear news of the war from the outside world, but they also found the map of the railroad he made, because that’s how much of a train nerd he is. But the Japanese figure him for a spy.
And so he is interrogated and tortured, for years, it seems. Director Jonathan Teplitzky pulls no punches. It is deeply unsetting listening to young Eric scream incoherently as he is waterboarded. It is even more deeply unsettling wondering how many viewers will find it deeply unsettling to watch nice cute white innocent Jeremy Irvine being brutalized onscreen yet be okay with the same treatment dished out by the nice, decent civilized West in the 21st century. When older Eric returns to Thailand in the 80s and confronts one of his torturers, interpreter Takashi Nagase (played as a young man by Tanroh Ishida [47 Ronin, Gambit] , and later by Hiroyuki Sanada [47 Ronin, The Wolverine]), he tells his former tormenter: “No one would believe it. No one would believe what you did to us.” Except, yeah, we would, cuz we’re doing it again now. And proudly.
If The Railway Man had let itself end on the notion that for battered, almost-broken Eric, the war never ended — which is the overwhelming emotion it leaves us with — that would have been tragic, but it would have been a fitting cap for the story we’d just seen. But it ends with one of those “where are they now” placards (the real Lomax only just died in 2012) that informs us that, Oh, hey, Lomax forgave Nagase and they totes became best friends. Which induces a sort of narrative whiplash, cuz: What? How Eric was able to come to see a once brutal man who treated him in the most inhumane ways as a friend needs to have gotten at least a little attention for us to accept it, particularly because it feels some contrary to human tendencies and also to what we’ve seen of Eric in the film. We haven’t see any inkling that he might be willing — or able — to forgive. (A very brief mentions of how Nagase has been trying to atone for what he did during the war certainly isn’t enough, either.)
We shouldn’t still be angry or confused or upset at the end of this movie. The relief it implies its characters are afforded doesn’t make its way to us. That train got derailed somewhere along the journey.