This may sound harsh, but I’m growing tired of WWII films that have a singular focus on the Nazis and Jews. There have been so many wonderful films successfully depicting the horror and tragedy that befell the Jews, but at the same time, there are so many untold stories from different perspectives that are worth being shared. This is one of those stories. The Railway Man is a film about Eric Lomax, a British Army Signals Engineer, who was captured as a prisoner of war and tortured at a Japanese labor camp during World War II. In Lomax’s later life, he discovers his torturer is still alive and sets out to confront him. The film switches between Lomax’s present day (1980s) and his past at the camp (1942).
I went in to this screening not really knowing much about the film. As the opening credits started to roll, we were informed The Railway Man was based on true events and an autobiography of the same name. The film opens on a train crossing a bridge and a young soldier, who looks out of time, as we hear Colin Firth’s voiceover reciting a nursery rhyme. As it turns out, it was a limerick of Lomax’s own creation:
“At the beginning of time the clock struck one. Then dropped the dew and the clock struck two. From the dew grew a tree and the clock struck three. The tree made a door and the clock struck four. Man came alive and the clock struck five. Count not; waste not, the years on the clock. Behold I stand at the door and knock.”
The director, Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man), cuts from the railroad tracks to a dark and confusing scene of Colin Firth lying on the floor, twitching and shaking in what appears to be paralyzing terror. This rhyme reappears several times throughout the film, and is used as a way for Lomax to ground himself during his episodes, in addition to Lomax’s ironic affinity for trains.
I must say, I think this is the darkest role I’ve seen Colin Firth (Lomax) portray. While he’s experiencing an episode, he looks calm and collected on the outside but unexpectedly lashes out. And his eyes are filled with such intense and varied emotions: love, malice and fear. However, we do see his tender side, as Patti (Kidman) pulls him back to reality. She truly is his anchor throughout the entire film. Honestly, I was both surprised and impressed by Firth’s performance. This was the most animated I’ve seen him in a role, especially during the flashback episodes.
Jeremy Irvine (Young Lomax) is no stranger to delivering moving performances as a soldier. My first encounter with Irvine was in War Horse and I am embarrassed to admit, I completely forgot who he was. However, his performance in The Railway Man is something I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. At first introduction, it seems Lomax was relatively untouched by the war. However, after the British surrender to the Japanese, his life changes forever.
Fair warning, the torture scenes are very intense and involve water boarding, cramped bamboo cages, starvation, and regular beatings with bamboo logs. After viewing the film, I learned Irvine actually became ill after taking too much water. As his time as a POW lengthened, you could see Lomax’s (Irvine) body start to deteriorate. He grows overly thin, and his body is constantly broken down and beaten. Somehow, through it all, he still manages to keep some semblance of his old life intact. He’s bright, imaginative and a true hero. And to the far right is a shot of the actual young Eric Lomax. They could be twins!
I was underwhelmed by Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Patti Lomax. For some reason I found the way she tried to comfort Eric as patronizing and more selfish to her own end: “I want my husband back!” It also didn’t help that Teplitzky didn’t really show any scenes of them trying to work through his PTSD. There’s just a few glimpses of Lomax (Firth) shutting down or rearranging rooms Patti (Kidman) had decorated, but nothing where they really address his symptoms head on. Patti instead goes to Finlay, (Stellan Skarsgård) for answers about Lomax’s past.
Generally speaking, the film felt a bit confused. At times, it was gearing up to be a really great historical drama, and then it abruptly switched and felt more like a horror film (and I’m not referring just to the torture scenes). Maybe this was Teplitzky’s interpretation of what living with PTSD feels like. Although, as a viewer, whenever Lomax (Firth) appeared on screen I felt my flight or fight reflex take over. I never knew if I should cringe or go about my regularly scheduled viewing. Additionally, I wish we could’ve seen more of Lomax’s (Irvine) life after he was liberated from the POW camp. There seemed to be such a discrepancy between Irvine’s outlook as opposed to Firth’s. It leads the viewer to believe Lomax’s symptoms developed over time, along with his bitterness, which I’m not entirely sure was the case.
The Railway Man is a very intense film and touches on dark material. Even though the torture took place nearly 70 years ago, eerily enough, it hits close to home (think Zero Dark Thirty). However, the overall message is really quite beautiful. After everything Lomax endured, he rose above the atrocities he faced and forgave Takashi Nagase. What’s even more uplifting is Lomax and Nagase ended up becoming great friends. Here’s a picture of the real Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase. Eric Lomax passed away in 2012 as the film was in post-production. This truly was an incredible story, and it’s definitely worth a watch.
Thoughts on The Railway Man? Would love to hear what you think!