Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is a self proclaimed railway enthusiast, not just a train spotter. On one of his frequent train trips, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful, recently-single woman, Patti (Nicole Kidman). Within a year, they marry and have a wonderful life together. That is, until his past – he was a POW working on the notorious Thai/Burma railroad under the constant beatings and torture by his Japanese captors – comes crashing down upon them in “The Railway Man.”
Director Jonathan Teplitzky and writers Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson adapt the 1995 autobiography by Eric Lomax, The Railway Man, and bring to light a piece of WWII suffering that few are familiar with. Lomax was one of the 80000 British soldiers to surrender, in what is called the worst disaster in British military history, in the fall of Singapore. The POWs from the fall were shipped off to Burma to build the railroad that could not be built.
The story starts out some 20 years after the war with Eric and Patti falling in love and getting married. Soon, though the wedded bliss is shattered when Patti sees that her husband suffers from a severe case of PTSD from his terrible experiences during the war. The worried wife wants to help and turns to Eric’s longtime best friend and fellow ex-POW, Finley (Stellan Skarsgard). Reluctantly, he tells her Eric’s story under the brutal hands of his Japanese captors.
The filmmakers use flash backs telling Eric’s story, from just before the surrender to the end of the war after his liberation in 1945. This period is the focus of the film as Eric and the rest must succumb to the torture inflicted on them by the Japanese. Eric, a young lieutenant and engineer, is given slightly better treatment than the tens of thousands laboring as slaves building the railroad. He and fellow officers use their relative freedom to pilfer parts to build a secret radio to get the war news, bringing hope to all. Until the Japanese find the radio. What transpires is a story of heroism and suffering, by Eric, inflicted by Japanese translator-turned-torturer Takeshi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida).
The visions of the war set the stage for the real drama of “The Railway Man” as Eric tries to cope, unsuccessfully, with his demons as Patti helplessly watches. That is, until Finley uncovers evidence that Eric’s tormentor, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), is alive and well and runs a tourist business for visits to the Burma railway site. Eric refuses to go to Burma to confront Nagase when a terrible event changes his mind and he makes the journey, alone.
When we think of PTSD, we do so in modern terms, as if it is a recent discovery. But, the disorder has been around since man began to war with man. “The Railway Man” is a powerful look at that disorder and how it profoundly affected those forced to survive unthinkable suffering. Colin Firth is sympathetic as elder Eric as he confronts his past. Nicole Kidman’ s Patti is a relatively minor character but the actress gives her some dimension, as does Stellan Skarsgard as Finley. Jeremy Irvine is well cast as the younger Eric and his treatment under Nagose is stomach churning with its graphic depictions of torture.
“The Railroad Man” is an earnest and well-crafted film that tells its little-known story with an honesty that resonates today with our own returning warriors. I give it a B.
Laura gives "The Railway Man" a B-.
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