Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman
Running time: 116 minutes
Release date: 10th January 2014 (UK)
This review contains spoilers.
The Railway Man is a powerful film based on Eric Lomax’s autobiography. Calling himself a ‘railway enthusiast’, the film focuses on his experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War. Lomax, who died last year, was captured after the Fall of Singapore in 1942, forced to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway and tortured by the Japanese. Set in the 1980s, we see how Lomax is still affected by the events of the war.
The film starts off sweetly as Eric (Colin Firth) and Patti (Nicole Kidman) have a romantic encounter on a train that leads to their marriage. But their newly-wed happiness is short: Lomax is still haunted by his experience as a prisoner-of-war decades before. His past trauma is seamlessly woven into the present narrative. Of particular note is the first flashback we see him experience, triggered by Patti having a shower. The rushing sound of water leads to Lomax being overwhelmed by a memory of a small white building with a dark door. As the film continues we are brought back to the memory of this dark door several times, building a sense of real fear when Lomax revisits it later. Patti finds him screaming and writhing on the floor – Firth portrays this well, as Lomax’s anguish is distressing and intense without being melodramatic. The focus is often tight on the actors’ faces, focusing on the eyes. A scene with just silhouettes of Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard was similarly effective and intimate as they discuss Lomax.
The film’s movement between the painful memories of the War and Lomax’s present, raw pain and desire for revenge is well crafted. Alongside fellow survivors including Finlay (Skarsgard), Firth’s Lomax still carries the trauma of being a PoW into the present. Firth effectively portrays Lomax’s post-traumatic stress of his near-death torture experience with restraint. Firth’s Lomax seems to worsen as the film continues, becoming more depressed and withdrawing from his new wife. Kidman is concerned wife desperately trying to help and connect with her traumatised husband – but as Finlay reminds her, she will never fully understand what he has endured.
Visually, the 1980s present is mostly sombre in muted greys, whites and darker shades whilst the vivid greens and yellows of Thailand convey heat and otherness. The back-and-forth of the narrative could have potentially been messy and confusing but is well handled. The past action is well-paced, allowing us to connect with the British soldiers especially as other men’s perspectives are given alongside Lomax.
The torture scenes and violence experienced by the soldiers are harrowing. Jeremy Irvine gives a solid performance as a young Lomax, especially when interrogated and tortured by the Japanese authorities. Most uncomfortable was the waterboarding of the young Lomax, especially as the camera’s focus added a claustrophobic quality. Hearing the prisoner’s screams is similarly distressing.
The film ends on a hopeful note. In the last act, Lomax discovers one of the Japanese officers who tortured him, Nagase is still alive. Whilst initially vengeful, Lomax reconciles with Nagase after tracking him down and an intense confrontation for the torture he suffered. Whilst not a happy ending, there is a mature, powerful closure in the forgiveness that the narrative ends on.