After the fall of Singapore in 1942, some 200,000 allied troops, including 25,000 UK soldiers, were forced into slavery by the Japanese. Many were shipped like cattle by railway to build the Thailand to Burma ‘Death Railway,’ deemed essential to Japan’s military strategy.
This horrific episode from WWII was heavily romanticised in David Lean’s Bridge Over the River Kwai (the River itself being a fictitious construct). But for Eric Lomax, a courageous, young British engineer who survived unspeakable torture, it was a hell that did not end with the prison camp’s liberation.
Instead he lived for 40 years with recurrent nightmares that cost him one marriage and, when we meet him (as Colin Firth) at 60 in 1980, seems to threaten a second. The Railway Man, adapted from Lomax’s fascinating memoir) has everything you could want from a movie: a true story, heroism, tension, war, peace, a powerful love story, an incredible act of forgiveness and a fine cast, but the end product feels underwhelming. Maybe this film, too, needed a David Lean to bring so much emotion to life on screen.
When we first meet Lomax (Firth), ironically, a railway enthusiast since childhood, he is in a train chatting up Patti, a pretty English divorcee twenty years his junior (Nicole Kidman). She seems surprisingly receptive to his running commentary of historic facts and Bradshaw’s time tables.
After a whirlwind romance, Mrs Patti Lomax moves into Eric’s large, gloomy house on the beach in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Somehow, it seems, Lomax never bothered to tell his bride that his nightmares (caused by undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic-stress disorder) had cost him one marriage and were frequent enough to ruin her sleep, if not their relationship.
Through Finlay (Stellan Skarsgaard), a fellow survivor of the ‘monkey houses’ of Kanchanaburi (tiny bamboo cages in which the prisoners were left to rot in 40 degree heat), Patti not only learns the truth about her bottled-up husband’s past, but that his nemesis, the ‘translator’ Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), is alive and repentant.
Lomax travels to Japan with murder in mind, but his confrontation with Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), now a volunteer guide, giving tours of Kanchanaburi, leads to something far more uplifting and healing.
Although Patti only comes into Lomax’s memoir at the very end, it was apparently she who first contacted Nagase and arranged for her husband to meet him.
In the film, adapted by Producer Andy Patterson (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Hilary and Jackie), and scriptwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (24-Hour Party People, Welcome to Sarajevo, Hilary and Jackie), Patti is a surprisingly passive presence, giving Nicole Kidman little to do accept express deep concern about her husband’s well-being.
Firth is, of course, perfect casting. After repressing any show of love for Ms Bennet in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, his fear of failure in the King’s Speech, and his sexuality in a Single Man, Firth has no trouble convincing us that he’s a walking pressure cooker struggling to contain his torment.
Curiously, though, for someone who had every bone in his body broken and was continually beaten with metal tools, Firth’s exterior is in perfect shape. Lomax walks like an athlete, has great teeth and only one little discrete scar on the flesh revealed in a discrete bedroom scene.
Jeremy Irvine (War Horse, BBC Film’s Great Expectations) might not look like Firth at 20, but he convinces us he is the young Lomax incarnate. Irvine also manages to convey fear and bewilderment at the surrender in Singapore and, as an engineer and railway geek, a natural urge to draw a map of the railway and assemble a receiver capable of connecting with BBC News.
When the map and receiver are discovered, it’s the end of the ‘good war’ for the relatively privileged engineers. After watching a comrade being beaten, Lomax courageously takes the blame and is singled out for torture.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky (The Burning Man) uses flashbacks sparingly and judiciously to tell his story. Despite Firth, Kidman and the big reconciliation scenes being in the ‘present’, it’s the flashbacks in the jungle that resonate. If Cottrell Boyce’s script is a tad anaemic, Teplitzky’s stilted direction doesn’t help.
The filmmakers might have spared us the full extent of the misery described in the memoir to secure a 15 rating and older audiences, but the film feels too subdued for the larger-than-life story it is telling. Truth is not only stranger than fiction but, unless you’re a David Lean, often more powerful.
by Joyce Glasser, Mature Times film reviewer