The 400-Word Review: The Railway Man
By Sean Collier
May 5, 2014
In an era of filmmaking where storytelling is undervalued, it’s lovely when reality provides a can’t-miss plot. Such is the case with The Railway Man, a British-Australian melodrama helmed by Aussie director Jonathan Teplitzky, currently in limited release in the U.S.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Eric Lomax, The Railway Man documents Lomax’s struggles to deal with crippling psychological damage resulting from a period of imprisonment during World War II. Lomax was an officer serving in Singapore when the Japanese conquered that nation; taken to a prisoner-of-war camp and forced to toil on the Burma Railway, Lomax cobbled together a radio to hear updates on the homefront.
The radio and a rough map were discovered by the Japanese, who tortured the young man for information and explanation. Lomax remained captive until the end of the war; many years later, he learned that his chief tormentor, Takashi Nagase, was alive and well.
Book and film are both chiefly wrapped around Lomax’s journey to confront Nagase. In the big-screen version, deftly adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, Lomax (Colin Firth) is spurred to action after meeting and marrying Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nurse. Lomax hides his affliction and troubles from Patti until the honeymoon is over; she seeks out information and advice from her husband’s fellow ex-POW, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard). The ensuing flashbacks drive most of the film’s first half.
The thick melodrama the script trades in would be tough to take if it weren’t true-to-life (though a few elements, particularly the romance, sputter). But the juiciness of the tale is enough to enrapture; the performances, by all of the aforementioned and especially Hiroyuki Sanada as the older Nagase, elevate The Railway Man to great heights of emotion and impact.
As much as the film is about war, it is also about the difficulty of peace, both personal and geopolitical. In the absence of war, peace does not come naturally or swiftly; by the nations and the individuals affected, it must be fought for, harrowingly. “I’m still at war,” Lomax tells Nagase; both men struggle for peace, and neither England nor Japan seem comfortable with it.
That so much can be said in a mostly domestic movie is remarkable. Not only should The Railway Man be seen, it should be shown in schools; the simple message Lomax fought to deliver deserves to be widely heard.
My Rating: 9/10
Average Rating from CriticsChoice.com: 75/100
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark