Movie Review: The Railway Man (NC16)

Movie Review: The Railway Man (NC16)

Review: Drama

116 minutes / Now Showing / Rating: 3/5

The story: British soldier Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942 and is sent to work on the Burma Railway in Thailand, where he is tortured. He remains mentally scarred years after coming home, but is in a state of denial. His new wife, Patricia (Nicole Kidman), is perplexed by his self-destructive rages, but with the help of his former comrade Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), she learns of his trauma. One day, Lomax (Colin Firth playing the older man) discovers that Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the Japanese officer involved in his torture, is alive and living in Thailand. Based on Lomax's 1995 book of the same title.

At the movies, vengeance is a far easier sell than forgiveness, and violence makes for a strong visual climax. But more importantly, bloody payback feels much more satisfying for the audience. Revenge thriller is a genre, and forgiveness thriller isn't.

This British-Australian co-production attempts to broach this structurally tricky topic and largely succeeds, though at the cost of psychological richness.

The story begins in the present (or close to it), when Lomax is shown to be an average train-obsessed nerd (he is not, as he reminds someone, a trainspotter but a train enthusiast).

It opens with him meeting Patti (Kidman), the woman who will be the driver of events. Firth, an actor most at home playing bottled-up Brits, is in his element and gives a powerful, nuanced performance as a man struggling with post-war stress in a society which tells men to just forget the past and get on with life.

Perhaps because she is Canadian (though the film does not make mention of it), she cannot abide by the stiff upper lip and code of silence which former prisoners of war live by, even as she sees her husband fall into black depression or violent rages.

The war years are visited as flashbacks, with director Jonathan Teplitzky rendering them in yellows and browns in contrast to the blues and greens of Britain. There is little emphasis on action and the scenes set in Singapore are over in less than five minutes: The men are shown surrendering, then being marched to Changi and on to trains bound for Thailand. Scenes of harsh treatment are depicted plainly, without overemphasis or veiling.

And when Lomax (in his youth played by Irvine) is singled out for torture for using a smuggled radio, the horror theme shifts into higher gear, explaining the NC16 rating. The exact nature of Lomax's torture is unveiled slowly to maximise suspense and, when the revealing happens, to the film's credit, it does not leave much to the imagination. This sets up the climax of the film, when Lomax comes face-to-face with one of his torturers, Nagase (Sanada).

This is clearly a film with a message, one which some will find naive or even condescending. It couches that message with a fair degree of sensitivity and, thankfully, stops short of prescribing Lomax's extraordinary act as a panacea.

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