Four stars. Rated R, for highly disturbing scenes of torture and war violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.25.14
It’s somewhat ironic that the “code of silence” shared by former British prisoners of war who survived their WWII ordeal, while forced to help construct the Siam-Burma railway, seems to have been echoed by filmmakers.
Following the 1957 release of director David Lean’s classic (if fictionalized) Bridge on the River Kwai, nobody has re-visited those events on the big screen.
Ironic, because — as often happens — truth is far more powerful than fiction. And, in this particular case, even a bit stranger.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky’s adaptation of Eric Lomax’s memoir, The Railway Man, is a deeply personal film: by turns grim, heartbreaking and spiritually uplifting. It’s propelled by yet another impressive and emotionally complex performance from star Colin Firth, who appears to be cornering the 21st century market on delicately articulated psychological turmoil.
Merely to glance upon Firth’s face is to share in the grief of a man we don’t yet know; the invisible scars radiate from him in waves.
But Firth isn’t alone. He’s matched, scene for scene, by Nicole Kidman’s equally fine work. Her part isn’t as showy, but it’s just as crucial; she delivers the same persuasive power with small gestures. A tilt of the head, a half-smile that vanishes before blossoming fully. The beginnings of a comment, swallowed before any words escape her lips. A sense that this woman constantly walks on eggshells, lest she unknowingly awaken more dormant memories in the man she loves, but doesn’t yet know or understand.
Memorably deft performances, in both cases.
For the most part, the same can be said of scripters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, who labored for years to turn Lomax’s book into a film. Their first act is a clever tease: deceptively light and sweet, almost a frothy romance, before dark storm clouds begin to smother the cheerful, sun-speckled tone.
The longer second act is horrific, in the manner of all powerful WWII sagas. The narrative may be far removed from the usual Western European setting, and the enemy faces may be different, but barbarism is universal. We wonder, once again, at man’s ability to debase and torture his peers. Not even war — not even this war — seems an adequate excuse for such spiteful cruelty.
The third act ... well, that’s where Boyce and Paterson falter a bit. But only a bit, and I’ll get back to that.
We meet Eric Lomax (Firth) in 1980, during a gathering at a venerable British gentlemen’s club. He displays a facility for railroad timetables that Sherlock Holmes would envy: an affectation that the others tease him about, but only gently. Even here, in this casual setting, we sense that trains and timetables aren’t merely a hobby with Eric, but more likely a defense mechanism.
During an otherwise average railroad trip, Eric enjoys a chance encounter with Patti (Kidman); awkward small talk quickly blossoms into something stronger. Their subsequent courtship is enchanting: a montage beautifully assembled by Teplitzky and editor Martin Connor, and granted additional charm by David Hirschfelder’s underscore.
Even so, all is not right in what should be marital bliss. Despite the kindness, devotion and integrity that she accurately senses in Eric, Patti quickly discovers an entirely different man during his tense moments behind closed doors. Bad dreams that render him almost catatonic, once awake. Sensory associations — a certain song heard on the radio, via a scratchy signal — that prompt an almost violent response.
Eric refuses to talk about this side of his life: this “something” that is very deeply buried. Shattered but determined, Patti turns to one of Eric’s closest friends: Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who recognizes how good this woman’s presence has been, to his longtime companion. And so Finlay tells of their shared experiences, nearly four decades earlier.
Cue the first extended flashback, as we meet the younger Eric (now played by Jeremy Irvine), a 22-year-old Royal Signals officer with the British army stationed in Singapore. It’s February 1942, and the British have just surrendered to the Japanese. Subsequent events are compressed a bit; Teplitzky and his scripters merely hint at the lengthy forced march to their final destination: the construction site of what eventually would become a railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma.
A project often known by its much harsher sobriquet: the Death Railway.
History records that more than 100,000 civilian laborers and Allied POWs — including roughly 6,300 British personnel — perished during this undertaking. The curious are encouraged to research the topic further; it remains largely forgotten these days, despite conditions that should have resulted in well-publicized war crimes trials.
Eric, Finlay (now played by Sam Reid) and their squadron are spared the worst back-breaking labor, because of their knowledge as engineers. Time passes; the men scavenge the parts necessary for Eric to build a primitive radio receiver. He also indulges his childhood passion for trains of any kind, by making a detailed map of this line’s slow progress.
Eventually, inevitably, he’s caught with these items. The immediate punishment is brutal, but the subsequent torture is worse ... particularly the application of a technique that has become quite notorious in our post 9/11 world. Eric’s ill-advised map is the primary focus, and he cannot get his torturers to believe that no, he’s not a spy, but merely somebody who really, truly loves trains, and made this diagram purely for his own enjoyment.
These increasingly harsh sessions are overseen by Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), the interpreter who asks all the questions and relays Eric’s unsatisfying answers. Takashi soon becomes the face of Eric’s torment: the implacable fiend whose image haunts our protagonist, all these years later.
Back in the present, wanting to help further, Finlay reveals that Takashi is still alive; worse yet, he seems to be profiting from his former exploits by conducting tours of the railway and former concentration camp, now a war memorial museum. The question, then, is what Eric will do with this information.
Teplitzky cuts between present and past, granting us details much the way Patti obtains them: in bits and pieces. It’s a wise decision, because the younger Eric’s ordeal becomes unendurable: far too painful to watch, all at once.
And therein lies one of this film’s minor problems. Teplitzky tries a bit too hard to convey the scale of trauma inflicted upon this one man. As depicted, Eric’s initial beating surely would have killed him ... or, at the very least, left him badly disfigured, since it’s not as if broken bones would have been set carefully. Yet Firth’s older Eric doesn’t limp or have trouble using either arm, nor does he labor to breath through improperly healed ribs.
This disconnect removes us, if only slightly, from the reality of these events.
More troublesome, though, is the aforementioned third act’s construction. What has felt quite authentic, up to this point, suddenly shifts tone and becomes the equivalent of a two-character stage play: oddly mannered and contrived, as if Boyce and Paterson felt it necessary to insert parallel structure, along with dialogue that reeks of significance and symbolism.
To a degree, this is necessary artistic license; Boyce and Paterson had to compress numerous events that occurred over a long period of time, into a single scene that tries to convey the same emotional impact. I’d argue, though, that in this particular case — at the climax of Eric’s saga — the effort falls far short.
One cannot deny the reality of Eric’s experiences; he clearly was tortured, and brutally, over the course of several years, and he did experience this eventual epiphany, decades later. But even when working with actual events, one must make them seem credible, in a dramatic context. Boyce and Paterson didn’t quite succeed.
More to the point, their third-act efforts are completely eclipsed by the brief but powerful text crawl and archive photos that appear, as the film concludes: images of the actual Eric and Takashi, which reveal the uncanny degree to which Irvine resembles the young POW.
Irvine also deserves credit for his performance, which deftly captures that blend of British resolve and aristocratic dignity that have typified a long run of actors ranging from Michael Redgrave and Robert Donat, to Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole. At the same time, Irvine’s young Eric displays a touching degree of naïve gentleness, coupled with an ingenuous assumption that all intelligent men, even his Japanese captors, should — and will — behave honorably.
It’s crushing to watch that idealistic light fade from Irvine’s eyes.
Ishida radiates feral cunning as Takashi, and we spend the entire film wondering whether this man actually is evil, or merely a “good Japanese soldier.” Hiroyuki Sanada navigates an extremely complicated path as the older Takashi, and does so with considerable finesse.
Phillips has a knack for striking visuals that compliment and even enhance narrative events: Firth’s distant figure profiled against a tempestuous seaside; a lone tree, its crown engulfed in flame, as the captured British soldiers are transported to their fate; a cluster of enormous idols sitting in silent judgment of events long past.
One cannot help being moved — even amazed — by this film, and its story, and in that respect Teplitzky and his cast and crew have done impressive work. But I can’t help thinking that Eric Lomax’s saga would have been much better served by a long-form miniseries; there’s almost too much to take in here.
And, needless to say, I’m now determined to see a 1995 documentary, Enemy, My Friend? that covers some of these events, along with a BBC television drama made the same year, Prisoners in Time, which stars John Hurt and Randall Duk Kim.