By Anita Felicelli
"The Railway Man" Falls FlatUploaded: May 5, 2014
Playing at CinéArts Palo Alto Square, The Railway Man adapts war veteran Eric Lomax's 1995 memoir. The story tells of how Lomax was tortured by the Japanese after his capture in Singapore in 1942 during World War II, his untreated PTSD following that, and his efforts to overcome the trauma. The story is told through a series of flashbacks. It starts with a confusing sequence that shows Lomax as a middle-aged adult falling in love with "Patti," a nurse (Nicole Kidman) he meets on a train. There are several scenes that show Eric experiencing horrifying flashbacks and nightmares. The older Eric Lomax is played by Colin Firth.
Patti asks Eric's army friend what happened and he tells her about the torture Lomax experienced while in a P.O.W camp. The younger Lomax is played by Jeremy Irvine. Lomax was helping to build the Burma Railway under slave labor conditions. He builds a radio to receive word of what the Allies are doing. When the radio is discovered, he takes responsibility and is tortured by his Japanese interrogator Nagase (Tanroh Ishida). The scenes of torture are horrifying?enough so that I looked away and enough so that it is pretty difficult to pull off the true-story ending, which centers around healing and forgiveness.
It's the performances set against dramatic cinematography that carry the movie and kept me from leaving in confusion at the midpoint from the structure of the storytelling, and the sentiment and ideas expressed. Colin Firth gives an excellent, restrained performance as usual. Nicole Kidman plays "female nurse angel" quite well, but she has little to say or do besides being a catalyst for recovery. To evoke the trauma, the movie relies heavily on camera work and swelling music. It is a slick representation of PTSD. Since I have a more contemporary sensibility, I could have done without an excessive score cuing me how to feel about torture and trauma - if you put it up on the screen, any rational human being can see how horrifying it is.
The curiously dull script descends into the formula for war movies and it tries too hard to matter. There is some pseudo-depth about "honor" in the Japanese tradition versus the "bravery" of the British tradition. Specifically, Nagase believes that Lomax should have killed himself rather than endure torture. Lomax, in the Western tradition, thinks the greatest honor is to honor one's life.
In the end, because this is a Western movie, Western values win out without much genuine complexity. The concluding section is valuable, but how we get to the touching true-story moment of transcendence is nothing special, just the same old Manichean formula. Although I was moved by the end, there was an opportunity here to show the audience that war is monstrous and destroys people without turning the primary Japanese character into a clear-cut monster that needed redemption. We know that one already. Tell us a deeper story in a more interesting way.