Review by-Jarrett Leahy
Eric Lomax, a former British World War II officer, has spent his time after the war desperately trying to overcome the horrors inflicted on him by his Japanese captors while a prisoner of war. After a chance encounter with a beautiful woman, Eric is given a sliver of hope to escape his inner turmoil, but painfully slips back into his psychological nightmare. When one his close friends, a P.O.W. survivor himself, informs Lomax that the man accountable for their horrific treatment is still alive, Eric sets out to accost his long lost tormentor. Based on the Lomax penned autobiography of the same name and starring Academy Award winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, The Railway Man is a tense and impactful P.O.W. story with a touching message of forgiveness that sadly has been all but ignored by most the cinema world since its April 11th limited release here in the States.
Similar to the subject matter of the famed The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Railway Man is a depiction of the suicidal undertaking of building the Burma Railway, or Death Railway as it became known, through the mountainous jungles of Japan. While admittedly a canonized classic, there’s always been something slightly off-putting about David Lean’s classic P.O.W. epic for me that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on until I saw The Railway Man last night. River Kwai tried too hard to make things feel almost…cheery. I have little doubt that the soldiers who were forced into that awful situation shared a type of national bond or camaraderie, but the overall jovial nature of the film with the whistling and comic relief has always been something I’ve found slightly disingenuous. In comparison, The Railway Man, even in its restraint in depicting the truly gruesome, gave a much more realistically horrific portrayal of what these men were subjected to while being forced to build this impossible railway.
The lead role duties are split between Colin Firth, who plays Lomax in his later years, and Jeremy Irvine, who portrays the younger Lomax during his WWII service. Irvine, a young British actor, first made a name for himself with his breakout performance in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 wartime drama, War Horse. Here he is entrusted with the difficult task of portraying the victim of the torturous practices the Japanese Imperial Army inflicted on captured British soldiers interned deep in the remote Pacific jungle during the war. The film utilizes the familiar technique of flashback storytelling, putting Irvine’s performance in constant comparison with that given by Firth. As a testament to the young actor’s abilities, never did I feel as if his portrayal was of lesser quality than that of his more accomplished counterpart. Irvine adeptly mirrors the character’s mannerisms established by Firth’s portrayal while still bringing his own personal interpretations of the effects these horrific acts had on Lieutenant Lomax.
Colin Firth, on the other hand, was asked to portray the silent, painful aftermath of this traumatic event in Eric Lomax’s life. As the circumstances surrounding his incarceration are revealed, it becomes a wonderment that this man is still functioning in regular society at all. Through the expert use of a distant, steely yet affecting gaze, Firth skillfully captures and projects the inner tumult eating away at this kind-hearted man who is still haunted by memories and vivid flashbacks decades later. The woman given credit for helping Lomax through these difficult times is his second wife Patti. It’s reported that Firth personally asked Nicole Kidman to step in and play the part of Patti when Rachel Weisz, who was originally cast, had to drop out of the project due to scheduling conflicts. Through a subdued, almost muted appearance, Kidman offers a sober, steadfast performance that gracefully complements Firth’s.
Cinematographer Gary Phillips’ exquisite use of the camera captured some extremely striking images. One particular scene that truly caught my eye was the nighttime arrival of Lomax’s recently captured battalion. Starting out of focus and slowly sharpening in on the faint candlelight illuminating the frightful work site filled with ghastly workers, we quickly discover these troops have been condemned to unfathomable living conditions.
If there is one fault I could point to, the filmmakers did take creative liberties with a revenge aspect of the story in comparison to the real events on which the film is based, but this choice ultimately adds an extra level of tension and intrigue. Scouring the top critics’ reviews, I noticed a few had complaints that the film was almost too safe in its representation of the atrocities imposed upon these brave soldiers. Personally, I think it’s a shame that if a film decides to show even the slightest bit of restraint in its depiction of wartime crimes, it is labeled by some as old-fashioned. Don’t misunderstand me, the torture scenes depicted are difficult to watch; however my appreciation for the filmmaker’s restraint lies in the fact that I can still recommend this moving and important true story to movie fans that are squeamish to ultra violence.
With it being Memorial Day weekend, I found it almost fitting that I got the opportunity to experience this gripping, inspiring story of our past. I just hope The Weinstein Company, the film’s U.S. distributor, will throw a little more of its backing behind The Railway Man so that more people can learn and share in this film’s important lessons about humanity and forgiveness.-JL