The Railway Man
Posted April 25, 2014 by Daniel Hodgson in
A true story does not mean a good story, not necessarily. The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, who was a prisoner of war in Singapore during WWII. While it is interesting initially, The Railway Man is difficult to sit through and then doesn’t pay off.
Years ago, Japanese soldiers dragged Eric into a dark room. What they did to him in that room, he won’t tell anyone—he can’t, not even decades later. Not his new bride, Patti (Nicole Kidman), or even his old war buddy, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård). The experience has left him traumatized, unable to live.
Finlay tells Eric that he’s found Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), who works as a tour guide at the very camp where they were prisoners. Encouraged by his wife and close friend, Eric travels back to Singapore, and take his vengeance.
Half of The Railway Man is told in flashback, in which Jeremy Irvine and Sam Reid portray the younger versions of Eric and Finlay, back when they were engineers for the British Army. When the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese, Erica and Finlay find themselves working for the enemy, helping them to build a railroad through the harsh, unforgiving jungle.
Eric’s defiance at the camp lands him in an interrogation room with Nagase (played by Tanroh Ishida in the flashback segments), an interpreter for the Japanese army. Eric answers Nagase’s questions, but Nagase doesn’t believe him, leading to beatings and torture.
Much of the mystery of the film is what happened in that dark room. A morbid imagination can run wild with the possibilities, but will be disappointed. Spoilers from here on. I cannot review the film without, well…reviewing the film.
The Railway Man spends the entire movie manipulating the audience into sympathizing with Eric and his quest for vengeance. He is portrayed as a smart, brave young man, who did not deserve what happened to him. He deserves his retribution. But when the moment finally comes, after all of the build-up, he chooses not to.
This moment is as anticlimactic as they come. The film creates a desperate need to see Eric avenged, and then doesn’t deliver. Instead, Eric forgives him, and the two become friends. That’s how it happened (more or less), but that’s not satisfying as a story. It makes you want one thing, and then gives exactly the opposite without earning it.
Now, a story about Nagase seeking redemption and forgiveness—and then actually earning those things—is a satisfying tale, but The Railway Man is not Nagase’s story; it’s Eric’s. To be a tale of revenge and redemption, it needs to be told evenly from both sides, and we have to be invested in both characters. As is, The Railway Man is told from the wrong point of view for what it’s trying to accomplish.
Nicole Kidman delivers a strong performance, as does the rest of the cast, but her character is lost in the shuffle of a movie that can’t make up its mind who it’s about, and her significance is consequently unearned.
Hmmm… now, wait just a minute here. A WWII -era story featuring a hero with a handicap (his psychological paralysis), with a cast of acclaimed actors? The scent of Oscar bait is strong with this one.