Friday, April 18, 2014
The Railway Man
During World War II in 1942, when Singapore falls under Japanese's attack, 25,800 British and 18,000 Australian servicemen are captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. A young British telecommunication officer Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is one of the prisoners of war. The Japanese put them into hard labor under horrific conditions to build the Burma Railway, also called the Death Railway. With a few electronic parts they salvaged, Eric builds a radio to get news about the war from home.
After the Japanese discover the radio, they suspect that Eric is sending out information about the railway construction, although Eric is simply fascinated by the railway which is built in a remote hazardous area. They brutally torture Eric and his fellow soldiers including using water boarding. One of Eric's torturers is a young Japanese interpreter Nagase (Tanroh Ishida).
More than forty years later, Eric (Colin Firth) and his buddy Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) are still haunted by the imprisonment episode and unable to move on. But they keep the misery to themselves, and remain silent even to Eric's new wife Patti (Nicole Kidman), who Eric met during a train ride. When they discover that Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and works as a tour guide in Thailand, Eric decides to confront the past and his enemy.
By any measure, this is an incredible story. Each of the three parts of Eric's life experience can be explored deeper. Yet, the director Jonathan Teplitzky seems unable to decide what part of the story he wants to focus on. He constantly switches back and forth in time and chops the film into pieces without getting the characters fully developed and integrated. As a result, the film creates two physically and mentally distinct characters even for the same person. That would be fine if the film created a transition process to show a person's transformation or established a viable connection between the young and old. What makes Jeremy Irvine and Colin Firth to be the same Eric Lomax forty years apart? Hardly anything. It's even more so for Nagase—how does a cruel war criminal played by Tanroh Ishida evolve into a gentle old man played by Hiroyuki Sanada?
When it comes to Nicole Kidman's character Patti, it gets worse. She is treated like a visual aid or a prop, simply serving the function of the plot and asking dumb questions like what happened during Eric's imprisonment. Is it really that hard to figure out that Eric was tortured like almost everyone in the hand of the barbaric Japanese army during World War II?
Both Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman must have been given a difficult task which they carry out well in the film. They often appear with teary eyes while the camera slowly circling around them, although it's hard to tell what those tears are for. Perhaps they are simply given the direction to be emotional, so being fine actors, there they are.
When the film rushes into its inconceivable conclusion, regardless how the story played out in the real life, we are left puzzled and surprised. But one thing we can sigh with relief is that Eric Lomax's suffering is finally over.