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Australia/United Kingdom 2013
Directed by
Jonathan Teplitzky
116 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

The Railway Man

Synopsis: Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) was one of thousands of Allied prisoners forced by their brutal Japanese captors to work on the notorious Thai/Burma Railway. Years later he is a haunted man, suffering nightmares and taking solace in his obsession for all things to do with trains. When he unexpectedly meets and marries the much younger Patti (Nicole Kidman), she is determined to rid him of his demons. Part of this catharsis may be to confront his wartime tormentor, Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida).  

Opposing man’s inhumanity to man with the power of love, this moving and inspirational true tale, based upon Eric Lomax’s memoirs, addresses a particularly brutal episode from World War II, one especially close to the hearts of many Australians. Teplitzky (director of the excellent 2011 film, Burning Man) had a challenge in recreating the story of a man still alive (Lomax died just before the film was completed) in a way that showed both the horror and the inspiration of Eric’s journey. He doesn’t flinch from the job and delivers a gripping tale that is disturbing and moving.   

The film opens innocuously enough as a love story in which Patti and Eric meet on a train ensuing in a rapid-fire marriage. But when the nightmares are witnessed and the new husband refuses to talk about it, Patti knows she has her work cut out for her, especially as Eric retreats back into his protective, distancing shell. At this point the film heads into the past with Jeremy Irvine playing the young Eric, one of countless soldiers, barely out of their boyhood and from whose ranks tens of thousands would die at the hands of the Japanese. We see the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the herding of men into trucks, heading for forced labour, torture and death. The time frame cuts back and forth between Patti and Eric’s marriage in the 1980s, (plenty of dowdy cardigans and musty interiors here) and the past in the POW camp.

Patti seeks advice from one of Eric’s wartime buddies, Finlay (an ever-solid Stellan Skarsgaard), who explains that there are some things men can never talk about. We discover in flashbacks that Eric was a radio operator and instrumental in setting up a ham radio to get outside news to keep up the men’s morale. The Japanese retribution was swift and merciless. Gradually and heart-breakingly, the extent of Eric’s bravery and past brutalisation is revealed, along with the shocking effect it has in the present on his marriage. The relationship between him and Patti is tenderly captured by the two leads who are both effective in their roles. Kidman in particular shows her chameleon-like versatility, this time as the demure yet strong wife, determined to crack the code of male silence and bring redemption and respite to the man she loves.

No film can ever fully recreate the reality of a wartime experience but The Railway Man comes pretty close. Stomach-churning scenes of beatings, water-boarding, and deprivation make one wonder how a person can ever endure, let alone go on with life. The authentic recreation of the POW camp brings its horror large to the screen, and with other scenes shot in chilly Scotland. where Eric lived, and the Thai tropical jungles, there is an almost oppressive sense of immediacy.

The human instinct for survival and hope is central to the story, as is the concept of forgiveness. Eric discovers, amazingly, that Nagase (now played as an older man by Hiroyuki Sanada) is alive and leading tourist trips along the Burma Railway. Thoughts of revenge are foremost in his mind and the scenes of confrontation are astonishingly tense.  At a time when Truth and Reconciliation trials are being held in many countries, this is a most timely retelling of an important story.




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