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Review of ‘The Railway Man’

10 May, 2014 0 Comments

A film for grown-ups?

By Lyle Dunne

I watched this movie with my wife and her father last year, because it sounded like a film for grown-ups, and dealt with a period of history of interest to my father-in-law, many of whose contemporaries fought in the Pacific war. (He himself joined the Light Horse, later mechanised, and was preparing for D-Day when someone decided their tanks were too heavy – for which I’m grateful.)

It deals with infamous Burma Railway, its effect on the men who were there, and how they dealt with it.

(Spoiler alert: if you’re thinking of seeing this film – and I’d recommend it – you may not want to read more of this review just yet. If you’re undecided, have a look at the trailer here.)

Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, a former PoW and survivor of the notorious railway, living back in England, as an emotionally repressed trainspotter – though to be fair, he was a trainspotter before the war – sharing a kind of half-life with a group of his fellow survivors. On a train he meets and falls in love with Patti (Nicole Kidman), and they marry, at which point his emotional problems, including the tendency to wake screaming in the night, come to the fore. Shortly thereafter they discover that one of their former oppressors, Nagase, is still in Thailand, giving guided tours of the railway. “The lads” essentially decide that the only way to expiate their collective pain is to send Lomax to Thailand to kill Nagase.

Lomax, however – whether as a result of the redemptive power of love, or the emotional detachment one feels is only partly the result of his wartime experiences – seems less convinced, at least on his arrival. He discovers that his former tormenter, who had been able to avoid punishment by claiming to have been merely working as a translator, sees his offering tours of the railway as a mission of spiritual expiation.

Lomax, then, opts for forgiveness – not, it must be said, out of any religious conviction, but simply because it’s the only way to escape resentment and the attendant misery. He sees only too clearly that accepting the role of assassin will not make him happy. To that extent, he is at least on the right path.

Granted, this falls short of the reaction of another Burma Railway survivor, Hugh Thwaites, who forgave his captors, excusing them on the grounds that they lacked the Christian faith – and in consequence went on to become a Catholic, a Jesuit and a steadfast defender of the Traditional Latin Mass until his death in 1992.

But compared with the usual run of mainstream Hollywood or even Australian or British offerings, one is grateful for anything that endorses at least natural virtue.

As a postscript, I recently re-watched the last part of the Bridge on the River Kwai, which also deals with the Burma railway. It focuses on a different kind of emotional conflict, with Alec Guinness as the British officer who organises his men to build a rail bridge for the Japanese, as a morale booster and possibly to demonstrate British superiority. (The film was released in 1957.)

I hadn’t seen this for decades, and in some respects it doesn’t stand up well. Guinness’s emotional conflict and instability are of course well presented by Guinness, but his moment of realisation at the end (“What have I done!”) is unconvincing, and his accidental saving of the day laughable. And in terms of historical authenticity, he and his men are so well-fed and snappily turned out that it’s an insult to the memories of the actual prisoners.

In this fictional world, though, the act of collaboration is perhaps less unimaginable than it would have been in one more realistically portrayed.

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