Wednesday, December 18, 2013

'The Railway Man' (2013) directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

The Railway Man is a handsomely decked out film.  Telling an inspirational true story of triumph over hatred in a particularly dark moment of the 20th century, complete with CG vistas of wars, a swooping score, great location shooting and populated by the cream of modern acting; Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgård.  Why don't they just start handing it the awards right now?  I mean, come on people, what more do you want?  Blood?!

Maybe it is blood I'm after because despite all the finery there's something missing from the heart of The Railway Man; a film that for all its ambitions towards humanist didacticism; all the brainpower it devotes to untangling what drives anger, hatred and cruelty; all the myriad ways it tries to find beauty and humour within darkest horror; despite all that it comes up short.

The film works with a split narrative, the primary story taking place in December 1980 and the second (told in flashback) in a Japanese Army work camp in Thailand during the Second World War.  Both stories follow Eric Lomax; bright, young and optimistic in the past (Jeremy Irvine) and traumatised and miserable in 1980 (Colin Firth).  As we open the film he meets the lovely Patricia (Nicole Kidman) on board a train and quickly the two fall in love and get married. But hiding just underneath Lomax's calm, bookish and pleasant exterior is a twisted up ball of psychological scar tissue.  He writhes and screams in his nightmares, falls into violent rages and retreats into mild catatonia.

Something needs to be done.  Popping her detective cap on Patricia heads to the servicemen's club to find out what the hell is so terrifying about his past.  She meets Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who served with Lomax. He reluctantly narrates a flashback to 1942, explaining how the British services surrendered in Singapore and how the soldiers were pressganged into constructing the Burma-Siam Railway or, as it's colloquially known, The Death Railway.  It lives up to its name, the construction process transforming plucky young Brits into filth-encrusted, barely conscious zombies - all under the sadistic cosh of Imperial Japanese Army.

Despite this promising material - albeit material that's been mined perfectly in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai - for most of its runtime The Railway Man is a bit dull.  The 1980s scenes reiterate the same problems repeatedly, taking an absolute age to get to the meat of the story, while the wartime scenes suffer from a rather off-putting digital sheen. Though these characters are living in filth they look like male models walking around in front of some slightly unconvincing CG backgrounds.

I was primed and ready for Teplitzky to land some knockout emotional punches, but they never came.  Despite charming 'meet cute' opening sequences we never quite connect with Firth's Lomax character, partially because he looks way too young to have served in World War II and partly because his sudden u-turn from bashful Hugh Granty train-geek to Stanley Knife wielding nutter is totally out of the blue.  I think they're trying impress upon us how shocking this transformation is for Kidman's Patricia, but in alienating her they alienate us too.  

As the younger Lomax Jeremy Irvine is probably better than I've ever seen him.  He goes for the torture scenes with the appropriate gusto, playing the character with a Christlike nobility and willingness to sacrifice himself for his brothers-in-arms.  In a somewhat odd development, Irvine often appears to be trying for a Colin Firth impression - duplicating his tics and stammers.  It's a neat acting trick but within the narrative it means Lomax is doing an impression of his future self, which doesn't make a huge amount of sense. 

After a bunch of meandering bullshit and endless shots of a miserable Colin Firth staring disconsolately out to sea, it's a relief when (halfway through the movie) the actual plot kicks in. We discover that Firth's torturer, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is not only still alive, but actually working as a tour guide in the decaying ruins of the prison camp he was a guard at. Finally the Lomax  has a motivation other than moping, and so the film takes a sharply compelling upturn as Lomax sets out confronts the man who broke his body and messed up his brain.

This confrontation is the key scene, watching Nagase and Lomax verbally bouncing off one other over a table in a grotty old torture room is fascinating.  There's a neat switcharound in roles, Lomax sociopathically relishing giving Nagase a taste of what it's like to be tortured rather than to dish it out.  It's here that The Railway Man finally comes close to achieving what it's trying to set out to do, the scenes of Firth remembering his waterboarding achieve a painful visceral quality now that we have a unity of place between wartime and 1980.

In graphically showing waterboarding as the most traumatic of tortures suffered by Lomax, Teplitzky draws inescapable connections to modern Western torture techniques.  Here, with a public schoolboy, shorts-wearing British soldier undergoing the torture things become a little hazier.  On some level, Lomax ends up as a representation of the detainees abused by his modern squaddie equivalents in black sites.  There's a subtle shock in realising just how monstrously 'our boys' behave, the film finding a way of allowing us to vicariously experience outrage in seeing the shoe on the other foot.

That's all well and good, but central to The Railway Man is the commendably Christian desire to forgive those that have trespassed against you.  So if Lomax is an avatar of those Western governments have tortured, then the film becomes a plea for our own forgiveness - the lesson of the film aimed at those we've wronged - imploring torture victims to turn the other cheek and embrace us in the spirit of forgiveness.  The assumption that contrite acceptance of atrocities inflicted upon you is the most moral course of action feels condescendingly paternalistic. 

The Railway Man isn't quite as good as a film as it clearly wants to be.  It's competently put together, but contains not a stitch of visual virtuosity, is soundtracked in the exact way you'd expect a film like this to be (i.e. boringly) and the script has more than its fair share of clunky dialogue. That said there's a steady uptick in interest as the film approaches its end and the final lesson in how to deal with those who've wronged you is commendable - if only on a surface level.


The Railway Man is on general release from January 10th. 

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