Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Railway Man

For F*** Magazine


Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast:         Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tanroh Ishida, Stellan Skarsgård
Genre: Drama, Biography
Run Time: 116 mins
Opens: 13 March 2014
Rating: NC16 (Some Violence)

Eric Lomax, a British Army officer during the Second World War, was one of many thousands forced to work on the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway as a Prisoner of War. He lived to tell his tale in the autobiography The Railway Man, which serves as the basis for this film. Colin Firth plays Lomax who, in 1980, meets and falls in love with Patti (Kidman). Lomax’s post-traumatic stress disorder manifests itself and drives a wedge in his and Patti’s relationship, so a concerned Patti goes to Lomax’s best friend and fellow WWII survivor Finlay (Skarsgård) to learn about what really happened. Flashbacks featuring a young Lomax (Irvine) and Finlay (Sam Reid) depict this. In the present, Lomax tracks down Takashi Nagase (Sanada), the Japanese officer who imprisoned and tortured him, to settle an old score.

As students, most Singaporeans would have studied the Japanese conquest of South-East Asia, but watching this first-hand account is something different altogether. With its intimate focus, The Railway Man personalises the historical tragedy in a way that is eminently relatable. The film starts out under the guise of a romantic drama, with a meet-cute on a train and the depiction of a middle-aged couple’s whirlwind courtship, but as old wounds are re-opened, the audience is thrust into the harshness of the Death Railway and the extent of the suffering borne by Lomax and many who were not as lucky as him is laid bare. A clever, haunting visual device has Lomax walk out of the hotel in which he and Patti are having their honeymoon and straight into Burma of the past, where he confronts the demons which have been gnawing away at him.

Many movies have featured shell-shocked veterans whose lives are irreparably shattered following the trauma of war, but The Railway Man examines the long-term effects of such trauma as well as how it can weigh on a significant other. There’s also that “the past is a foreign country” theme, Finlay scoffing at tourists taking “Bridge On The Bloody River Kwai holidays,” a reminder to never forget the atrocities of war even if they seem like they may not directly impact us. However, a major change that this movie makes from the true story is how Lomax’s reunion with his tormentor is couched as an almost-Oldboy-esque quest of vengeance rather than one of reconciliation. Ostensibly, this is to up the tension and the scenes are indeed nail-biters, but the conflict comes off as feeling forced and this embellishment ultimately seems disingenuous.

The ever-dependable Firth is on expectedly excellent form, conveying the bottled-up torment of having lived through the war, while also displaying quick flashes of child-like innocence in Lomax’s love of trains. Irvine, who was a revelation in War Horse, is good as the young, pre-trauma Lomax, his performance lining up with Firth’s nicely. Sanada more than holds his own opposite the Oscar-winning Firth and he deserves his growing status as Hollywood’s go-to Japanese actor. Kidman is in a more passive role, having the story told to her for much of the movie, but she and Firth are relatively believable as a couple. While an excellent actor, Skarsgård’s Swedish accent is still audible and perhaps a British actor would have been better suited to playing Finlay. Seeing him and Firth together also conjures up images of a solemn semi-Mamma Mia! reunion.

Cinematographer Gary Phillips and composer David Hirschfelder both provide the film with plenty of atmosphere and, while the end result has its moments of stirring emotion, it can’t help but feel engineered and inauthentic at times. Even though the story’s focus makes it more involving, there’s also the danger of losing sight of the bigger picture and The Railway Man doesn’t quite balance this as well as the best war movies have. That said, Eric Lomax’s story is one that should be told onscreen and Firth’s performance possesses enough power to make up for the film’s shortcomings.

SUMMARY: The artistic license that The Railway Man takes feels forced, but Colin Firth’s turn as Eric Lomax is undoubtedly moving.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


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