The true story of Eric Lomax, the prisoner of war who many years after World War II forgave and became friends with one of the Japanese soldiers who had tortured him.
The Railway Man
The War Of The Worlds by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The Railway Man is based on a true story, the memoir of Eric Lomax, who, after the British army surrender in Singapore in World War II, was taken as a prisoner of war of the Japanese army and forced to work in constructing the ill-fated Burma-Siam railway in Thailand. It’s a very British film which, behind its initially stiff upper lip, connects with deep emotions that make it a quietly moving story of forgiveness and redemption.
Colin Firth is excellent as Lomax, capturing his middle-aged decency and apparent diffidence as the film starts off in the 1980s. This masks, as we find out, his inner steely determination. He is, and always has been, a true railway obsessive, knowing national timetables and connections like the back of his hand. A chance meeting, appropriately on a train, leads to romance with Patti, the woman who becomes his wife (Nicole Kidman unrecognisable in a brunette wig and flawless English accent). The railway setting almost has echoes of Brief Encounter and their conversation shows us he is also capable of quiet humour. But after their marriage, horrific flashbacks start of his time as prisoner of war, something the former British army officer has never spoken about and still cannot. Desperate to help, Patti manages to make Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), his old comrade at the veterans club, break their vow of silence and so most of the story is told in flashback.
Jeremy Irvine is also excellent as the young Lomax is earnest and upright – and clearly a geek, as he would be called now – mirroring the mannerisms of the older Lomax. He’s among the British prisoners transported to the construction camp in the jungle, reminiscent of Bridge over the River Kwai, where conditions are brutal and men are worked to death. The Japanese guards make use of his skills as an engineer, and he also uses this access to steal parts and build a crude radio on which the men in his hut listen to the BBC news. When the radio is discovered, four are subjected to a 45-minute beating with pickaxe handles – a prolonged unpleasant scene – from which two die. The scene is also instrumental in showing Lomax’s physical courage, which is somehow unexpected. Even after he has seen the first man picked at random and beaten unconscious, he takes his glasses off, placing them carefully out of the way, and volunteers for his own beating, hoping to save the others. The Japanese find the maps he has drawn of the railway line and believe he is a spy – they can’t understand it is merely his obsession with anything to do with railways – and he is subjected to further prolonged interrogations and torture, including lengthy and realistic scenes of waterboarding, all assisted by Japanese army interpreter Nagase (as a young man, Tanroh Ishida).
Flash forward, and middle-aged Lomax reads in a newspaper that Nagase is still alive, having escaped execution as a war criminal. The camp has been turned into a museum and he is working as the museum tourist guide. Without further explanation, we next see him arrive in Thailand, at Kanchanaburi, site of the infamous bridge over the River Kwai, making his way to the Camp Kempeitai museum to confront his tormentor. He traps Nagase (as an older man, Hiroyuki Sanada) after all the visitors have gone and confronts him in the very room where he was interrogated, now housing an exhibition. He has a knife and it’s clear his intention is to kill the man who made him suffer the ultimate in powerlessness and humiliation. He imprisons him in a small cage that prisoners were kept in. But as they talk, and as accusations, justifications and explanations are shot back and forth between them, they reach the truth and realise they have much in common. Neither of them has ever been able to talk about the war before. Nagase has tried to redeem himself by his work but Lomax admits painfully that he is still at war. But now he realises the hating has to stop, and instead of killing Nagase, he uses the knife to cut him free from the imprisoning ropes he has bound him with and simultaneously start to liberate himself from constantly reliving his torture in the past.
As the memoir tells, the two enemies became friends and remained so until Lomax died in October 2012 aged 93. As the film nears the end, there is another symbolic scene, of reconciliation, as the two walk towards each other from opposite ends of a cutting made for the unfinished railway line (now curated and hung with lights). They meet in the middle and Nagase bows. It is indeed a moving and well-acted film and possible award material, though it is somewhat low key – perhaps deliberately so in the same way as its central character – and its manipulation of time, with its framing device and flashbacks and forwards seems overcomplicated. The emphasis of the screenplay (by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) is on the camp scenes, which are very well visualised and directed – stepping over corpses as they arrive, the regiments of skeletal, exhausted men, the colours of fire and clash of metal as they try pointlessly to construct the railway that was too difficult to build for a war that has already nearly ended.
But Lomax’s relationship with Patti, which was crucial to his being able to finally open up, is hurried over after their initial meeting – we suddenly see they are married, and then married for some time – and Patti’s character doesn’t seem fully developed given the significant part she played. (The real Patti Lomax is still alive and currently speaking at screenings on the film’s publicity circuit for its release around the world.) Lomax’s meeting with Nagase and the set-up of the dramatically changed relationship they establish in the end also seem brief and it would have been interesting to have seen the psychology of that explored in more detail. In real life, thereafter every Christmas and birthday, Nagase would send Lomax a card showing a Japanese train.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky is known for Burning Man (2011), Better Than Sex (2000) and Gettin’ Square (2003). He was still shooting the film when Lomax died: he was able to visit the set just once, the crew lifting his wheelchair to the top of a steep hill where Colin Firth was being filmed staring across the sea.
The Railway Man is released on 10th January 2014 in the UK