Monday, April 21, 2014

War Ends So Much Later For The Railway Man

The Good: Wonderful acting, Engaging story
The Bad: Pacing, Graphicness makes watching it devoid of any enjoyment, Predictable character arc
The Basics: Pairs of performers, plus Nicole Kidman, give great performances in a story of a man who must choose between revenge and forgiveness as he wrestles with the effects of his torture in The Railway Man.

As Summer Blockbuster Season kicks off, Colin Firth is going a far more serious route and sewing up his next round of Best Actor nominations with The Railway Man. The Railway Man might represent Firth’s next chance to be acknowledged as a great actor come award’s season, but the film is equally a triumph for young actor Jeremy Irvine, who plays the younger version of Firth’s character (Eric Lomax) in the film. Both men are deserving of nominations (if not awards) and would doubtlessly get those nominations . . . if anyone watched the film.

The Railway Man is a difficult film to watch, which is a somewhat stupid statement to make, but a necessary disclaimer. The film is based upon a biography by British World War II veteran and prisoner of war Eric Lomax and given that much of the movie is a recollection of torture and wartime prison conditions, the phrase “difficult to watch” is a bit of an understatement. Obviously, Lomax living through the experiences was far more traumatic and difficult than watching a film based upon those events. Still, it is essential to note that this review of The Railway Man is a pure review of the film alone; I know nothing of the historical accounts of Eric Lomax or any other British p.o.w.s. Before watching The Railway Man, the closest account I had for such events came from Bridge On The River Kwai (reviewed here!). It is also important to note that when I comment upon characters within the film, I am only discussing the individuals as they appeared in The Railway Man based on the limits of the script and the demands of modern filmmaking.

Opening in 1980 in Great Britain, at a veteran’s club, the quiet Eric Lomax recounts meeting a woman on a train. Eric met Patti and, because he knows where she will be, he is able to find her again. They develop a relationship, fall in love, and marry. But shortly after their wedding, Eric begins experiencing night terrors, sleepwalking and hallucinations of a Japanese soldier. The soldier is one who tortured him during World War II. Eric, however, is unwilling to talk to Patti about his experiences. Patti turns to Finlay, Eric’s compatriot from his time in the war and he tells her the story of how in 1942 their group was forced to surrender and be captured by the Japanese when the British pulled out of Saigon. Transported to Thailand, the captured British soldiers are interred to build a railway for the Japanese. Eric, being an expert on all things train-related, tells his compatriots that they are being used as slave labor for a train whose production was stopped due to the extreme dangers involved in clearing the way and laying the tracks.

Finlay and Patti become convinced that Eric will never get better until he confronts what happened to him after he was beaten by a Japanese soldier and taken away for days and tortured. Finlay reveals that he has discovered the identity of the soldier who tortured Eric. Learning that Nagase is alive and appears to be living well leads Finlay to ask Patti if she will stay with Eric if Finlay shares the information with Eric and he decides to act upon the information. Patti says that she will stay with Eric, but when Eric learns of Nagase’s existence, he seems unwilling to act. Frustrated and angered, Finlay kills himself and Eric is motivated to hunt down Nagase to exorcise his demons. Eric finds Nagase and interrogates him in a tense showdown between the two men.

The Railway Manis a somewhat dry film that incredibly explores the nature of grief and the consequences of wartime actions. The word “dry” certainly applies; even at the outset of the film, the characters are off-putting and very British. The initial courting scene between Eric and Patti is so stiff and repressed that Patti has to say “I am so happy” in order for the audience to know that she is actually enjoying the love she and Eric are sharing.

And The Railway Man is appropriately tough. After a long, dry spell, the film settles into a lot of necessary but not-at-all-entertaining exposition before the meeting between Lomax and Nagase. In that section of the film, all of the big character moments happen and as cathartic as they are to see, they are also incredibly predictable. Would Hollywood or Australia make a film wherein a prisoner of war is tortured, gets his life (mostly) together and then becomes a torturer himself? Not bloody likely. Instead, as one might predict, The Railway Man is all about Eric Lomax’s journey from being tortured by his memories to coming to terms with his survival and the surviving man who was involved in his torture.

And, Colin Firth is amazing at making that transition. Firth has an incredible emotional range and he makes the subtle moments of realization for his character work. It is clear when Lomax makes his important decisions because of Firth’s glances and slight furrowing of his brow. Jeremy Irvine is wonderful as well, playing the younger version of Eric Lomax exactly as Colin Firth would have were he only younger. Hiroyuki Sanada and Tanroh Ishida play off one another as the older and younger versions of Nagase with equal skill.

The performer who surprised me most was Nicole Kidman, though. Kidman plays Patti and she is – until a very late scene where she simply opens the door – virtually unrecognizable in the role. Kidman plays Patti with a reserved quality and quiet grace that is unlike any of the other roles I have seen her in. She plays the supporting role of Patti with a simplicity and strength that is surprisingly compelling.

Despite the impressive performances, The Railway Man is a very tough sell to recommend to viewers. It is not really entertaining and the catharsis is so choreographed as to be somewhat anticlimactic. The film tells an important story, but it is very difficult to watch. One suspects that Lomax’s memoirs would be much more insightful and a better use of one’s time and attention than watching The Railway Man.

For other works with Stellan Skarsgard, please check out my reviews of:
Thor: The Dark World
The Avengers
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

6.5/10 (Not Recommended)

For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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