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The Railway Man – Review

January 15, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


How often while watching a film trailer these days, does the immediate tagline recite: “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events”? I’d say there’s an inflation of real life source material in current cinema, driven by the wrong assumption that such pedigree would automatically translate into an interesting and compelling movie. At the same time, despite dull screen adaptations of true stories abound on the screen, this category of films, if anything, often uncovers stories within more famous events that are worth getting to know. The Railway Man, based on the best selling memoir of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who was tortured as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp during World War II is not one of this year’s most outstanding cinematic achievements. Yet a superb cast is enough an incentive to learn about this man’s little known powerful story.

When the Japanese overtook Singapore in 1942, a large number of young British soldiers became prisoners of war and were forced to work on the construction of the infamous Death Railway in Thailand. Eric Lomax was only 21 when he surrendered with his comrades. While under capture, he and the other prisoners were victims of inhumane conditions such as making their way through rock and jungle with their bare hands, being starved, beaten and exposed to tropical diseases. But Eric’s destiny was even harsher. He was a Signals Engineer and a railway enthusiast and in order to bring some hope to his bruised and battered friends he managed to build a secret radio. As he spread the word about Hitler’s defeats and the American advance, giving his comrades the will power to survive, the radio was eventually found and Eric suffered the bitter consequences of interrogations, beatings and much worse kinds of torture.

Barely surviving this atrocity, Eric returns home but the shock of what he has experienced is too much to bear and he practically shuts himself off from the world, tormented by the memory of a young Japanese officer who was there translating for the group who tortured him. Only decades later Eric is finally able to get out of his shell for the first time when he meets a beautiful woman on a train. That is actually how the film begins, with adult Eric played by outstanding Academy Award winner Colin Firth meeting his soon to be wife Patti played by another Oscar winner, the recently not-so-much-on-the-spotlight Nicole Kidman. When the couple gets married Patti has still no idea of the darkness that harbors within Eric’s soul. Despite the positive influence of her presence in his life, Eric’s scars are too deep to just vanish in a puff and it doesn’t take long for Patti to find Eric curled up on the floor, screaming with terror, victim of one of the panic attacks he suffers from periodically, haunted by the atrocious memories of what he went through.


Eric won’t open up with Patti about his past and life becomes unbearable. She has no choice but looking for answers on her own and she winds up going after one of Eric’s old time comrades, Finlay, played by the wonderful Stellan Skarsgård. The story unfolds via flashbacks from Eric’s time in the war intercutting with the present time and it must be noted how the very promising Jeremy Irvine does a marvelous job at portraying young Eric. It’s not just about nailing the mannerism and sensibility of his adult counterpart but more than anything being able to brilliantly convey the terror and the pain of what he faces as he faces it, with the same intensity Firth displays via symptoms of PTSD. The breakthrough in the story is the discovery that the Japanese officer who haunts Eric’s nightmares and daydreams is still alive and that Eric has a shot at getting closure. But the real question is what will be the path to achieve this closure: revenge or forgiveness?

Despite its slow burning pace, The Railway Man is an interesting and captivating reflection on the horrors of war and how its induced traumas can change a man forever. The setting, tone and style of the story are reminiscent of a Graham Greene novel. Though the absence of a more traditional conflict keeping the tension high throughout might turn off the regular moviegoer, the film reaches certain peaks of intensity, typical of a psychological thriller, that won’t leave anyone indifferent. Aided by a marvelous cast, by the time it reaches its climax, The Railway Man will have you ponder on the power of merciful forgiveness versus bloodthirsty revenge and will leave you speechless at realizing how these events actually took place in real life.

The Railway Man is out in UK cinemas.

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor