Based on the memoir by Eric Lomax, “The Railway Man” tells the story of a man’s experiences of his internment at the hands of the Japanese armed forces during the Second World War, the aftermath of his torturous experiences and the love of his wife who seeks to heal the psychological scars of those experiences.
I haven’t read the book on which this film is based, but following a positive recommendation of the book I decided to see this film at my local cinema.
The narrative for this story written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, author of “Millions” and “Framed as well as being the scripter for the London 2012 Opening Ceremony, has a clever structure. The opening scenes introduce the viewer to Eric (Colin Firth), an apparently eccentric railway enthusiast who recounts the story of meeting a woman on a train, Patti (Nicole Kidman), who he falls in love with. Following Eric and Patti’s marriage, we, along with Patti, gradually learn of Eric’s experiences as a Prisoner of War following the Japanese capture of Singapore in 1942 as recounted by his former senior officer Findlay (Stellan Skarsgard and through flashback sequences with Jeremy Irvine in the role of Eric), how those experiences have psychologically damaged him and the Wall of Silence that Patti faces in trying to understand what Eric has gone through.
The direction by Jonathan Teplitzky shows tremendous attention to detail in depicting the locations of England and Scotland in 1980 and of the location of the Burma Railway in 1942. Equally as clever as Cottrell Boyce’s script, Teplitzky shows the damage caused to Eric through sequences that mixes his past and present, most prominently in a scene which shows the older Eric being dragged to a room that has significance later in the film.
The performances by all of the acting talent is nothing short of top notch. Colin Firth’s performance as Eric is sensitively handled, on both a performance and storytelling front. In the early scenes, he sells the feeling that Eric is an eccentric man who has a serious passion for all things railway, but as the film progresses his character is stripped back to show the psychological toll of his experiences as a P.O.W. and his unwillingness to speak of them, for which the reasons are explained later in the film.
Firth’s role as the older Eric is perfectly balanced, both physically and from a storytelling standpoint, by Jeremy Irvine in the role of the younger Eric. Irvine portrays his version of Eric as a man of noble defiance, especially in the scenes of his incarceration and torture by the Japanese army’s secret police, whilst carrying the same quirky enthusiasm for railways as his older counterpart. In addition to this, Irvine manages to replicate Firth’s physical performance adding credence to them being one and the same person.
Nicole Kidman provides balance to the older Eric in the role of Patti. Her early performance is romantic in nature, nicely convincing that Eric would fall for Patti at first sight and vice versa. This gives way to a performance of a deeper love and the quiet resolve of a woman who wants to heal her husband’s nightmares but who is also fearful of the Pandora’s Box that she has opened.
Stellan Skarsgard provides an understated performance in the role of Finlay. He portrays a man who is as equally as haunted as Eric and his former comrades in arms, but who also has the responsibility of trying to hold the men together in spite of their collective trauma and who eventually breaks down the conspiracy of silence in his recounting of Eric’s experiences.
Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada portray the younger and older versions of Nagase. Ishida’s performance as the younger Nagase is chilling as a man who has, in effect, been indoctrinated into believing that Eric and his fellow Allied soldiers are animals due to their surrender to the Japanese forces, especially during the scenes of Eric’s interrogation and torture. Sanada’s performance is one of a man who has been equally as damaged by the War as Eric for reasons that become apparent as the film concludes and a man who does engender the audience’s sympathies as much as Eric.
Given the film’s sensitive subject matter, it is handled with respect and without sensation. That said, I have to advise that there are scenes which necessarily show the violence inflicted upon Eric and his fellow soldiers, including a torture scene which includes water boarding.
It’s unfortunate that this film has been released amongst a raft of other films which are based on true stories. It neither has the glitz of a film like “American Hustle” or “The Wolf Of Wall Street” or the across the board heavyweight casting of a film like “12 Years As A Slave”. What it does have are solid performances complimented by a sensitive script and equally sensitive direction.