Saturday, May 24, 2014

In Theaters: THE RAILWAY MAN (2014)

(Australia/UK - 2013; US release 2014)

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.  Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson.  Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Sam Reid, Tanroh Ishida. (R, 107 mins)

Based on Eric Lomax's acclaimed memoir of his time spent in a Japanese prison camp after the fall of Singapore during WWII and his later efforts to track down the officer who tortured him, THE RAILWAY MAN offers fine performances and harrowing depictions of war crimes, but sometimes suffers from hokey dialogue and too often emits a "Weinstein Company awards bait" vibe.  The script by frequent Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson takes some occasionally questionable liberties with Lomax's story, but overall, it's a solid film that succeeds more often than it stumbles, and gets an immense boost from a quietly powerful performance by Colin Firth as Lomax.

Set in 1980, the film presents Lomax as a milquetoast railway enthusiast with an almost savant-like knowledge of trains and rail schedules.  He meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) during a train ride home and, in a bit of rushed storytelling, they hit it off and soon marry.  Only then does Patti become aware of Lomax's PTSD in the form of nightmares, mood swings, periods of aloof silence, and attacking a bill collector with a box cutter. He refuses to discuss his war experiences, prompting Patti to turn to Lomax's war buddy Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard), who also believes in the stiff upper lip, keep-calm-and-carry-on mentality but can see how much Patti wants to help his friend.  Flashing back to 1942, young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) and Finlay (Sam Reid) were engineers taken prisoner by the Japanese and forced to help build the Burma Railway (part of this railroad was the centerpiece of the 1957 classic THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI).  All the men were tortured and treated with barbaric cruelty by the captors, none more than Lomax, who was caught with a secretly-built radio used for listening to British broadcasts.  His captors insist it was an instrument for secret communication, and though he endures extensive beatings and all manner of torture overseen by Kempeitai officer Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), Lomax never gives in.  Back in 1980, Lomax's psychological torment threatens his marriage and his sanity until Finlay alerts him to a Kempetai historical museum located at the very camp where they were prisoners, and the museum is run by none other than Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada).

THE RAILWAY MAN then sends Lomax off on a mission of vengeance against Nagase that becomes a journey of healing for both men.  The remorseful Nagase is just as haunted by his actions during the war, and runs the museum as a way of setting things right and dealing with the past.  It takes Nagase a few minutes to realize he's talking to Lomax. In reality, Lomax never considered revenge, their reunion took place in 1993, and Nagase knew he was coming.  From the outset, the meeting was an effort to turn the page on that chapter of their lives.  Of course, film is a different medium and THE RAILWAY MAN is not a documentary. Dramatic developments must be expressed in their own way, but initially portraying Lomax as a nebbishy vigilante seems a bit disingenuous, no matter how good Firth is in the role. The inaccurate 1980 setting seems to have been chosen perhaps because it's the latest year that the filmmakers could possibly ask the audience to buy Firth in the role of a WWII vet, considering the two men, both born in 1919, were 74 when they reunited. The film also does some pre-emptive damage control to maximize audience sympathy, completely eliminating the fact that Lomax was married for 37 years and had two adult children who wanted nothing more to do with him when he left his wife for the younger Patti in the early '80s, and he wasn't quite the stammering, socially-awkward Rain Man he is in the early scenes. Nevertheless, taken in its own context and on its own terms, THE RAILWAY MAN is compelling, with outstanding performances by Firth and Sanada, even if both look too young for their roles at 52, when Lomax and Nagase would've been 61 even if they met in 1980.  As for the rest of the cast, Kidman has little to do after the midway point, but Irvine (WAR HORSE) does a remarkable job of channeling a young Firth and bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Lomax.  As far as a "true story" is concerned, to say THE RAILWAY MAN plays fast and loose with the facts is an understatement, but the essential message of forgiveness and healing is key and in that respect, the film gets the job done. This story was also adapted into the 1995 British TV movie PRISONERS IN TIME, with John Hurt as Lomax.

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