Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man is a bracingly adult film — in the real sense of that term — that has somehow bobbed up in the midst of the silly season of spandex and explosions. Don’t ask why this should be. Just go support it.
It’s an extremely well-made, somewhat old-fashioned biographical drama about a deeply disturbed former prisoner of war, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), who learns that the man, Takaski Nagasse (Hiroyuki Sanada, The Wolverine), who tortured him in the Japanese slave-labor camp in World War II is still alive and running a memorial museum at the former camp. Much of the drama revolves around whether or not Lomax will confront his tormentor, and if he does, what he plans to do. That, however, is really only part of this deeply complex film, which slowly gets around to this central issue.
Teplitzky’s film actually starts in 1980 with Lomax in late middle age. He has the nerdy railway enthusiast and amateur historian equivalent of a “meet cute” with Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train. The somewhat pedantic older man clearly interests her, while Lomax himself is immediately smitten — to the degree that he travels her presumed itinerary until he finds her. Soon they’re married, but it’s then that Patti discovers that her bookish husband has deep-seated troubles tied to the time he spent working as slave labor on the Thai-Burma railway after the fall of Singapore. Actually, we get more insight into this than she does — at least at first — through depictions of Lomax’s nightmares that place him as he is now in the context of his prisoner-of-war experiences. She tries to cope, but the problem only seems to get worse — to the point that he attacks someone with a box cutter. It isn’t until she plies what information she can out of his fellow former prisoner, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), that Patti gets any real insight into the situation. And even Finlay doesn’t know the whole story.
The plot reaches its peak when Finlay uncovers the truth about the man who was Lomax’s chief torturer, believing that Lomax will seek his revenge. But Lomax refuses — citing his responsibility as a married man — until Finlay sends him “a message he can’t ignore.” This propels the film’s most powerful and ultimately moving section: Lomax returns to the site of the camp and confronts Nagasse. It is also here that we learn the full extent of what happened — not only to Lomax, but to Nagasse. What this is and how it plays out belongs to the film and not to the reviewer.
As I said, the film is somewhat old-fashioned. Its most obvious antecedents are David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) (the former is even cited in The Railway Man’s dialogue). Actually, it might be said to combine the two sides of Lean — the intimate (Brief Encounter) and the epic (Kwai). Approaching The Railway Man as Kwai done in the style of Brief Encounter would not be far off the mark. But for all its classic-era echoes, the structure of The Railway Man with its nightmares, flashbacks and even outright fantasy scenes is fairly modern, making the film much more than an exercise in “making them like they used to.” (For that matter, the unflinching depiction of the torture Lomax endured is something Lean would never have been allowed to shoot.)
Owing to the nature of the story’s time frames, Firth, Skarsgård and Sanada are all played by younger actors — Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid and Tanroh Ishida — in the actual World War II flashbacks. While the younger men don’t quite look like their counterparts (Irvine comes closest and completely captures Firth’s manner of speaking), they do manage to feel like they could have aged into their later incarnations. Some have found The Railway Man on the slow side, but I found it compelling throughout. Others have found it uneven and, of course, some have raised the old “this isn’t exactly how it happened” — a claim that can accurately be leveled at every historical drama, biopic and, yes, documentary ever made. My take is simple — see it for yourself. I don’t think you’ll be sorry. Rated R for disturbing POW violence.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.