I was never a fan of films set during wars – I think it was because, as a kid, my father would make me watch them and I never enjoyed them because of this.
Recently, however, I’ve found myself drawn to a number of films set during conflict – Hotel Rwanda, Unbroken, War Horse, Private Peaceful, they’ve all found their way onto my viewing list and I’ve been moved by the stories that they’ve told. They’ve not been stories of the conflict, more stories of humanity.
“You can talk about it, why can’t he talk to me about it?”
That is where The Railway Man comes in – Colin Firth (and Jeremy Irvine) deliver truly heartbreaking performances as Eric Lomax, a man who was held captive by the Japanese and driven close to breaking point with the consequences still haunting him decades later. Nicole Kidman has really come into her own over the years, with an emotional, if somewhat reserved, performance as Eric’s wife, Patti, who acts as our conduit into Eric’s world, uncovering the past he fights to keep contained.
As a prisoner of war, Lomax and his comrades are forced to complete construction of the River Kwai bridge, a monumental and ambitious undertaking by the Japanese who used their captives as slaves, treating them inhumanely.
The crippling emotional pain, the lasting mental and physical scars, that Lomax has suffered are brought to bear with such might by Firth that it’s impossible not to feel his pain. As the younger Lomax, Irvine is on form as the resourceful soldier and railway enthusiast, working with his fellow soldiers to build a railroad, whilst planning an escape and trying to maintain his humanity – it’s not, as would have been told in past generations, a story of heroism, it’s a story of overcoming the harshest of conditions and the unthinkable brutality of captivity.
“This wasn’t a tragedy, this was a crime.”
The meeting between Lomax and Nagase, decades in the making, explores Lomax’s hatred of Nagase and the justifications the Japanese officer, now a tour guide, of his actions. As Lomax seeks retribution, we him at his darkest, the rage that he has kept pent up for so long finally exposed and, from this, we are shown reconciliation and hope.
In the same vein as Unbroken, also based on a true story, The Railway Man is a haunting tale of the human spirit and excels in this narrative with its understated realisation of the story, driven by an powerhouse cast including Stellan Skarsgard, Hiroyuki Sanada (and Tanroh Ishida as the younger Takashi Nagase), in which few come out undamaged, but humanity triumphs.