Film Review: The Railway Man.

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard.

This review reveals major plot points for The Railway Man. All references to characters in this review are referring to their portrayal in a fictionalised film - not the actual people upon which they are based.

Image taken from film The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, produced by Archer Street Productions et al, streamed on Kanopy database.

THE RAILWAY MAN

"I think what is not often addressed is the effect over time. We do sometimes see stories about what it's like coming home from war, we very rarely see stories about what it's like decades later. This is not just a portrait of suffering. It's about relationships ... how that damage interacts with intimate relationships, with love."  Colin Firth.

The Railway Man, filmed partly in Queensland’s Ipswich district, tells a story of such strange circumstance and brings with it such broad implications of what it means to have lived through unthinkable terrors, it could be dismissed as a fable of wish-fulfillment and a plea for grace amongst its audience. The fact that the events depicted here are true are what raises the work to something approaching profound.

Serving as an engineer in World War Two, young British officer Eric Lomax and his squadron are detained and sent to serve under a brutal Japanese fist building the Thai-Burma railway line, hacked out of the earth over hundreds of kilometres worth of dense jungle and looming mountains – a route that had been dismissed by generations as being impossible without the use of “An army of slaves” as Lomax describes it. Cobbling together a primitive radio receiver to monitor English radio broadcasts, it’s not long before Eric and his associates are found out, and punishment in the form of weeks of prolonged torture are visited upon out protagonist – forever changing him into the repressed, psychologically tumultuous we meet in the form of Colin Firth. Firth is an actor that has always been able to convey damage with simple efficiency – his turns in The King’s Speech and A Single Man alone reveal a vulnerability and depth that seem genuinely earned, and not just a simple façade of ticks. It’s to his credit that he shies away here from making Lomax a figure of admiration or stoic bravery, and leans into the quiet, unheard scream of daily re-occurring trauma. This performance is repression given a face.

Despite his marriage to the saintly Patricia in 1983 (Nicole Kidman gamely doing what she can with the one-size-fits all chore of “endlessly supportive saint-wife"), Eric is a shell of what he could have been, obsessed with the minutiae of his daily habits while allowing his past trauma to metastasize and poison everything in his life – up until the point his friend and former prisoner Finlay (the always reliable Stellan Skarsgard) uncovers the whereabouts of Lomax’s former tormentor – a particularly vicious interrogator named Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada, again great as ever) who is now ironically working as tour guide at the very camp in which he and Lomax had shared such terrible intimacy nearly 40 years prior.

It’s at the middle point, where it seems the film is going to reveal itself as a revenge story, promising catharsis through retribution, that the sense of a peril bubbling beneath the surface of the movie begins to manifest itself. Lives will be changed, and if Lomax were to carry out what we presume to be the murder of his former captor, there are many today who would praise him and elevate his actions as justified. Evil to balance evil – even at the cost of the souls of all involved. A story to inspire nothing but this endless cycle of war. Fortunately for all of us, it’s here that what could have been a nihilistic tale turns into something far more interesting.

This is an odd picture, one that luxuriates in the trappings of anglo-centric Prestige Cinema, in which sweeping orchestral scores and a nearly fetishistic gazing on totems of the past (steam trains, shadowy sitting rooms, genteel English landscapes, the creaking of leather chairs) assure us that this all very proper and important. Yet it strains at its generic shackles – both with occasionally jolting technique, but also in the sense that the story will not give in to the dubious comforts of resignation and reflection. Like Patricia and eventually Eric – it's a motion picture that transforms itself.

At times The Railway Man feels like several films jostling for space in the one movie – the building of the radio is a tense, but overall enjoyable caper that evokes an Ocean’s Eleven style of master team planning, the third act is mostly an intense quest for the salve of violence, while our entry to the story is all hushed secrets and stifling formality that harks back to the more indulgent Merchant & Ivory school of cinema. In the end, it makes for a satisfying whole – who among us couldn’t say that we’ve lived through separate comedy, romance, action or horror pictures at one point or another of the course of our lives?

As one of the last gasps of Prestige Cinema, this is a film that shows us what this slightly stuffy, self-important school of movie craft can achieve when handled by capable, empathetic craftspeople.

Further reading

  • Accessible popular fantasy: The Railway Man and Australian world war II films. MacEwan, Ronan; 2014. Metro Magazine: Media & Education Magazine, Iss.179, pp.88-93. (article
  • Miming in the choir [Film review of The Railway Man, by Teplitzky, Jonathan.]. Davies, Luke; 2013. The Monthly, (Dec 2013-Jan 2014), pp.78-79. (article
  • Torturous journey to reconciliation. Robinson, Andrew, 2014. The Lancet; Vol.383 (9911), p.20. (article)
  • 'Railway' took slow track. Dawtrey, Adam, 2011. Variety; Vol.424 (11), p.6. (article)
  • Stars of Tomorrow One-to-One: Sam Yates meets Jonathan Teplitzky. Rosser, Michael; 2016, Oct 3. Screen International. (article)
  • American-Australian Cinema : Transnational Connections / Adrian Danks ; Stephen Gaunson ; Peter C Kunze ; Cham : Palgrave Macmillan US ; 2018. (ebook)
  • The enemy in contemporary film / Löschnigg, Martin and Sokołowska-Paryż, Marzena (eds) ; Berlin ; Boston : De Gruyter ; 2018. (ebook)
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