RAILWAY MAN, THE
English soldier and railway enthusiast Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is captured among the thousands of Allied prisoners after the 1942 fall of Singapore in World War II and forced to work on building the Thai-Burma railway. When a secret radio receiver he builds with fellow prisoners is discovered, he is severely beaten and tortured, leaving him traumatised for many years. Years later, in 1980, on one of his many rail journeys in England, he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) and they fall in love - but his ongoing nightmares and his refusal to speak about his torment impact on her, and their otherwise loving marriage. Patti is determined to help Eric slay his demons, and with help from army friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard), they discover that the young Japanese soldier who was one of his torturers is very much alive, working as a tour guide at the railway museum. (Based on a true story.)
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As moving as The King's Speech (not least due to Colin Firth's emotionally minimalist but powerful stiff upper lip characterisation) and as beautifully made, Jonathan Teplitzky's film of Eric Lomax's memoir - as written for the screen by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson - is stunning cinema. Here is another perfect example of subject matter that is not Australian, but made by Australians, proving yet again that it's the storyteller not the story that marks its national identity - and that's only of interest for funding and festival branding reasons. We the audience, are only interested in the actual cinematic experience, and Teplitzky shows he knows how to speak cinema, and has matured as a filmmaker - not that he was ever immature - using nuance and understatement as a primary force.
This may seem an odd thing to say, given the brutal beatings and savage encounters in the prison camp, but they are conveyed in the service of the story, with great control - and are not the whole film.
Inevitably, the central motivation of traditional Japanese soldier culture gets an airing: surrender is dishonourable, better to die. Lomax represents - and articulates - the Western view: living is the more honourable thing.
Surrounded by a brilliant team and working with a talented cast fully committed to this compelling story (reminiscent in some ways of the excellent Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, 1983), Teplitzky gives us everything that cinema can deliver in telling it: lights, camera, action - and music, indeed. David Hirschfelder's superb score is emotive, haunting and perfectly fitting, while Martin Connor's edit is remarkable for its strong storytelling in a non-linear fashion. We are always emotionally involved, but never feel manipulated. And Teplitzky's attention to detail is admirable.
There isn't a performance less than 100% real, not even in the extras who slave on the railway or sit in the veterans' club in England. As for the leads, it's a high wattage ensemble in which Firth and Kidman both disappear in their characters, as does Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax and Stellan Skarsgaard as a fellow POW.
There is no doubt, though, that it is Hiroyuki Sanada's brief but shattering performance as the older, post war Japanese soldier, Nagase, that we'll treasure as the moment of redemption, release and humanity that is the film's climax. No spoilers, but this sequence of scenes is the film's beating heart, its most demanding and challenging moment. We feel every conflicted emotion as Lomax confronts his demons head on, never quite sure how he will deal with it.
It's amazing how after so many movies about wars, and about this war in particular, there is still something to say about the human condition through one man's experience.
Review by Louise Keller:
The past, the present and the future are addressed in this profoundly moving drama in which the unspeakable echoes of the past reverberate to such an extent they cannot help but impact on the present and the future. The story belongs to railway enthusiast Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), whose recollections of the horrors experienced at the hands of the Japanese during the construction of the Thai Burma railway in 1942 have been adapted from his autobiography by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Tragedy or crime? The code of silence assumed by allied prisoners forced to build the notorious railway is the focus of Jonathan Teplitzky's powerful film, the breaking of the code being prompted by a chance meeting on a train. There are many vital ingredients to this story - courage, love and redemption - each playing their part in our tumultuous journey, which in turn is elevated by the film's elite cast.
Like the story at its heart, Cottrell Boyce's screenplay is simply structured as it flits naturally from the present to the past until they merge into one. Meeting Eric Lomax (Firth) in his Northumberland home in 1980, we immediately notice his obsession and seeming withdrawal from the world at large. Trains and their timetables are his obsession and it is on one of his frequent train journeys that he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), the love of his life. The scene in the train in which idle chit chat becomes meaningful is the beginning of Eric's road to catharsis and Firth makes Eric real every step of the way. He couples Eric's complexity with a deep seated vulnerability that allows the heart of the story sing. The fact that he is unable to share the painful details of his past with anyone and especially the woman who changes his life is something about which we can empathise. Kidman makes a statement by her understatement, providing a rock solid motive upon which Eric must act. It is Stellan Skarsgård's Finlay, who lived through the angst-filled experiences with Eric, who becomes Patti's confidante and who ultimately delivers the message his friend cannot ignore. Skarsgård is most effective in the role.
Jeremy Irvine, who brought us to tears in War Horse, is the perfect choice to play the young Eric, whose traumatic war experiences are relived in circumstances that are almost too close for comfort. It is the covert creation of a radio receiver to instill a beacon of hope amongst his engineer colleagues that is the trigger for the devastating abuse and torture that follows. What happened to Eric during the two weeks about which he never spoke? We are kept in suspense until deep into the exposition, when circumstances take him back to Thailand to face the horrors he has bottled up inside.
All the film's elements are beautifully handled - from the production values to David Hirschfelder's sensitive score. The film comes into its own as Eric puts himself face to face with Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), the man from whose hands the life-changing torture was delivered. How will he react, when it is he, not Nagase who is now in control and asking the questions? These are highly emotional scenes that escalate into an even higher realm at the film's potent conclusion. Those final scenes are guaranteed to leave a lump in the throat and Sanada delivers spectacularly in what is a tremendously difficult role.
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RAILWAY MAN, THE (M)
CAST: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skargard, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida, Marta Dusseldorp
PRODUCER: Chris Brown, Bill Curbishley, Andy Paterson
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Teplitzky
SCRIPT: Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Paterson (memoir by Eric Lomax)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Garry Phillips
EDITOR: Martin Connor
MUSIC: David Hirschfelder
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Steven Jones-Evans
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2013