The Railway Man (Teplitzky, 2013)

Does depicting torture automatically earn a movie three stars or more if it is inspired by a true story?

I am not trying to be cheeky. Heaven knows I am not. I’ve known people who have been tortured. I imagine I have looked at them with many of the same feelings that Jonathan Teplitzky and screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson have for Eric Lomax (Colin Firth): respect, admiration, even a hint of awe.

Those are all the feelings, not coincidentally, that so many of my students used to have for their grandparents (most of them dead) that they wanted to write about the first several years I taught Freshman Composition. I always tried to steer them away to safer topics. Very few of us have the emotional capacity to distinguish between someone giving low marks to our personal heroes and someone giving low marks to our representations of them.

Lomax is a railway enthusiast who meets–I’d say “meets cute” if the film weren’t so somber it made all such references to film conventions appear offensive–his wife to be on a train he hops onto at just the last moment. (Nicole Kidman has her smallest role in years.) Pretty soon they are married and pretty soon plus one scene later he is curling on the floor and screaming in night terrors. She can’t get him to open up about his nightmares, but chances are pretty good they have something to do with the time he spent as a prisoner of war.

Eric finds out the Japanese translator who tortured him is still alive, and he travels back to the camp (now a war museum) to confront him. What happened there was so special one can hardly believe a movie could mess it up even if it were trying. I can’t believe The Railway Man is trying, but it seems like every directorial and editing decision is designed to draw our attention away from what makes the story special–and here I offer implied┬áspoiler warnings–and towards that which makes it generic.

The film’s biggest mistake is, I think a reoccurring flashback structure that splices Eric’s prisoner-of-war experience in between his return to the camp. That is meant, I suppose, to raise the emotional stakes (as if they needed raising) of the confrontation between Eric and Nagase and keep us in suspense about whether or not Eric will extract retribution. The problem with such a structure, aside from the fact that it makes the film seem oblivious to where the story’s actual drama lies, is that once Eric makes his decision, we are asked to process in five minutes what he struggled with for many years. We understand intellectually that he has had years to process this experience, but for us it has just happened, and so his response to it is both underdeveloped and under-explored.

Eric says that his wife, Patti, has made the difference between him and those who chose to try to deal with their war experiences in other ways. That’s believable in a biographical sense, but I challenge anyone to point to a single scene or exchange between Eric and Patti in the first one hundred minutes of the movie that would make the audience understand that fact if Eric didn’t tell us it was so.

Colin Firth has made a career out of playing men uncomfortable in their own skin. He brings a vulnerability that is at odds with his imposing size, and in works such as Fever Pitch, Pride & Prejudice, The King’s Speech, and A Single Man, he manages to lace his woundedness with an emotionally raw quality that makes it appear unaffected and not actorly. As such, he is the perfect actor to play Eric, and he does it well. But…

Is it wrong for me to say that the film is actually less inspiring than a two minute summary of it would be? That I wished the film had started exactly where it ended, or better yet condensed itself into a ten minute, before the credits preface to the story that was told in its postscript? Yet despite the fact that the film takes the most exceptional part of the story and treats it like an afterthought, I am glad that Eric’s story was made known. He must have been an extraordinary man.

 

 

 

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