By ALAN SWERDLOW
The Railway Man / Directed by Jonathan Teplitzy / 16V
At one point in The Railway Man, Colin Firth, portraying one Eric Lomax (on whose memoir this film is based) says very emphatically, “I am not a train spotter, I am a railway enthusiast”. He later repeats the railway enthusiast part of the line (though it is, in fact earlier, since we are by then in an extended flashback) to his Japanese captors. I mention this in case anyone does confuse this meditation on memory, guilt and post-traumatic stress with a satirical observation of anorak-clad, notebook and binocular clutching train spotters. It is anything but.
We’re back into Death Railway, Bridge On The River Kwai territory here, something that has largely been forgotten since the vast majority of those few who survived, have now died. While, as I already indicated, director Teplitzy does show us much of the gruelling horror experienced by the forced labourers on the Burma-Siam railway, his focus is more on the reaction experienced by the survivors more than 35 years later.
Lomax leads a lonely life as a retired railwayman (despite his experiences) spending his time at weekly gatherings at an ex-servicemen’s club. They are hardly empowering and comforting gatherings since everyone seems to carry a history they cannot comfortably express or share. However, his encyclopaedic knowledge of railway timetables brings him into contact with an equally lonely nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on board a train and they soon marry. When his demons resurface and lead to an estrangement between them, she attempts to seek some closure for him with the assistance of his old comrade, played by a miscast Stellen Skarsgard, whose wayward Scandiwegian vowels and air of inexpressible Nordic sorrow make him a candidate for a star turn as an alcoholic detective with a series of his own, somewhere very cold and damp.
Jonathan Teplitzy nonetheless gives us a restrained, respectful and solidly constructed account. Despite a restricted budget, he manages to recreate the Fall of Singapore, Changi Prison, the forced marches and the horrifying labour camps deep in the jungle, tersely and effectively. No jolly squaddies whistling the Colonel Bogey March as they discreetly empty yellow sand from escape tunnels here. In fact, I was wondering if Teplitzy had put his cast on a starvation diet for some considerable time, so realistically skeletal do they look.
He’s equally good at conveying the generally dispirited soullessness of the “present day” Scottish border town, and his cinematographer, Gary Phillips, leaches colour and life from the contemporary scenes to make the post-war experience bleached of life and energy, while saturating the intensity of the jungle with a poisonous, metallic viridian that is malign and threatening.
The climactic scene comes when the older Lomax confronts his nemesis, the translator Nagase, now seeking expiation by leading guided tours of the former prison camp and railway. The quiet confrontation in the room where Nagase had once interrogated Lomax and had him tortured, has all the complexity of a three-act drama of its own, and is where the film is at its best.
Teplitzy coaxes fine performances from most of his cast. Colin Firth is impeccable at conveying stifled emotion and boxed undercurrents, and his performance is subtle and delicately judged. Jeremy Irvine is also particularly good as the younger Lomax, effortlessly capturing the timbre and cadences of Firth’s voice and speech patterns, and cleverly suggesting mannerisms that have become eroded in the older Lomax. Hiroyuki Sanada as the older Nagase matches Firth in his watchful, contained emotions and is generally as good. It’s not all that easy to portray complex, repressed intellectuality on screen but both actors do particularly well.
The real problem, other than Skarsgaard, is Nicole Kidman, who delivers nothing more than two dimensions. She’s like an early, crude transformer doll, the kind with a Janus head showing two faces. Here she alternates repeatedly between concern and hurt, and there’s not that much difference between them. Fortunately, her on screen time is limited, or there has been a very judicious editing job.
The Railway Man is engrossing and skilful enough but is ultimately not as satisfying as it should be. There’s something indeterminate missing from its core, much like many of the survivors. It’s hardly a husk, though, but perhaps it’s too respectful and too restrained about its subject matter.