Soon after it opened in London in January, I attended a preview screening in New York of The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky and starring Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård, and Hiroyuki Sanada. The film has just been released in the U.S.
The Railway Man is a true story adapted from Eric Lomax's World War II memoir. Lomax (Colin Firth), along with other British and allied prisoners of war in Japanese occupied Thailand, is a slave laborer forced to help build the Thailand to Burma "Death Railway" line over forbidding terrain (twelve thousand allied prisoners perished) -- a railway that would aid the Japanese war effort.
That sounds like a familiar raked-over theme. When I viewed the trailer prior to the screening, several war films came to mind, particularly The Bridge on the River Kwai. I thought, "Oh yet another prisoner of war film." In its stripped down raw simplicity that's true. But this film will transport you to the hellish inner sanctum of torture experiences like none other -- with an amazing surprise ending.
Lomax, a British officer, is singled out for punishment for building a radio receiver that his Japanese captors wrongly believe is a transmitter. The ensuing torture to get him to reveal what information he was sending is over-the-top brutal in its depiction of cruelty and suffering.
War is horrific, for the victors as well as the defeated. It destroys lives on the battlefield and in the torturous aftermath of lifelong struggles of survivors who wrestle with tenacious demons -- as we are currently witnessing among veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Most don't climb out of the depths of torment -- especially without intensive help. But there are rare souls who find a path of redemption. Lomax is one of the rare ones.
To say any more, would take away from the experience of the extraordinary journey that this film will take you on. You might cringe, or even close your eyes, as the violence unfolds and relentlessly builds. But when it all comes together you may conclude, as I did, that the film is a masterpiece.
A touching love story, developed in flashbacks, between Lomax and the lovely sensitive Patti (Nicole Kidman) whom he serendipitously meets (later marries) -- coincidentally on a train -- provides touching moments of reprieve from the violence.
The Railway Man is not a perfect film. The fast paced flashbacks, alternating between past and present, can be annoying at times. And some of the prisoner of war scenes show a dashing Lomax who looks too well groomed for the circumstances. How is it that his glasses never break or get lost? But these minor flaws fade behind the gripping drama.
The stunning tour-de-force performances of Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, and Hiroyuki Sanada add to the power of the film. Don't miss it. It's worth the pain of viewing.
Bernard Starr is a psychologist, journalist, and college professor. He is author of Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Psycholgy and Spirituality to be Truly Free. His latest book is Jesus Uncensored:Restoring the Authentic Jew.