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Non-Review Review: The Railway Man

The Railway Man is certainly an ambitious film. Adapting the true story of British Second World War veteran Eric Lomax, who won the 1996 NCR Book Award and the J. R. Ackerley Prize for The Railway Man, his autobiographical account of his time in Japanese captivity and the aftermath of the war. Adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, and directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, it remains a fascinating and compelling exploration of the wounds left festering by war.

The biggest problem with The Railway Man is that it is perhaps too ambitious; it tries to include too much, and to cover too much ground in the space available. Despite that, it remains a moving and harrowing look at the remarkable life of one veteran.

Trained for this...

Trained for this…

The Railway Man never quite settles on a genre. It opens as something of a quirky odd-couple romance, with “train enthusiast” (“I’m not a train-spotter!”) Eric Lomax striking up a conversation with Patti Wallace on a train he only took to by-pass rail works. The two strike up a conversation inspired by Lomax’s encyclopaedic knowledge of train schedules and railway line. Their flirtation develops over the course of the brief journey, to the point where Lomax rather understatedly tells his veterans’ support group, “I think I’ve fallen very much in love.”

So the two fall head over heels in love with one another. They marry and move in together. Patti almost immediately finds herself coming up against Eric’s post-traumatic stress disorder, manifesting itself in a variety of ways. Patti begins to pry in Eric’s wartime service, peeling back the layers of an onion. At this point, The Railway Man shifts into a more historical wartime epic, following the fortune of British captives forced to assist the Japanese in building a railway from Bangkok to Burma, a route that the British had deemed “too barbaric and too cruel” to build during the height of the Empire.

Back on track...

Back on track…

And then, before we’ve had a chance to settle into this genre, The Railway Man shifts tracks again. Suddenly, one of Lomax’s old army buddies has tracked down details of one of his tormentor. It turns out the man who oversaw Lomax’s brutal torture is now managing heritage tours in that part of the world. “Bridge over the bloody River Kwai tours,” Lomax’s old army buddy bitterly spits out. Handing Eric the information on where to find his old tormentor, and a knife, the film suddenly transforms into a moral dilemma about revenge and moral authority.

All of these are fascinating windows through which to explore the experience and legacy of warfare, and The Railway Man moves along at a quick enough pace that it can manage those strange jumps sideways. Colin Firth’s central performance as Eric Lumax helps anchor the film. Firth is characteristically understated and dignified, creating a sense of a man bottling up everything inside him until it inevitably reaches boiling point. Firth creates a wonderful sense of suspense around Lomax, inviting the audience to wonder how far the veteran might go in order to see his journey through.

A veteran railway enthusiast...

A veteran railway enthusiast…

The problem is that The Railway Man feels a little over-stuffed. While it’s nice to try to establish Lomax’s life after the war, there simply isn’t enough time to develop it. So we get snippets of his problems and struggles – the sense that Lomax is having difficulty paying his bills, that he’s locked away an important part of himself, that there’s an incredible amount of raw anger simmering just beneath the surface. However, The Railway Man feels like it only sketches the broad details of Lomax’s life as a survivor of the Second World War.

In particular, as a result of the film’s race to cover as much ground as possible, Patti feels quite under-developed. She’s a window into the world of Eric Lomax, but we never get too much of an angle on her – she never feels like a real person. We know that she recently got out of a bad relationship, but Patti spends the bulk of the film snooping around her husband’s past, providing the audience with a nice segue into flashback sequences. She’s more of a plot function than a character, and it feels like a waste of Nicole Kidman.

Going a bit off the rails...

Going a bit off the rails…

However, director Jonathan Teplitzky lends the movie an endearing and dream-like quality. It helps transition the film’s radical shifts between genre, suggesting that the film we’re watching is something of a waking hallucination. In particular, Lomax’s tormentor stalks the landscape of the film. He visits the veteran on his wedding night, and he’s watching Lomax’s train from a scenic green landscape. No matter where Lomax might be, he’s still only a nightmare away from the horrifying black room.

Using these sorts of clever visuals cues to blur the lines between Lomax’s war-time experiences and his current reality, Teplitzky lends the movie a decidedly ethereal vibe. It helps to smooth over the gaps left in the movie’s need to cover as much ground as possible in the time allotted. The prison camp scenes are harrowing and effective, and Teplitzky manages to skilfully convey the horrors of the situation that Lomax and his colleagues endured. It’s a truly harrowing account of the circumstances surround the construction of these railways by the Japanese.

Railroaded into helping...

Railroaded into helping…

The Railway Man is a thoughtful and clever piece of film. It just suffers from a surplus of ambition – it tries to do too much with the material on hand and the space available. Still, there are worse flaws to have.

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