The Railway Man (2013) ***** is the story told by the late Eric Lomax who in the late 20th century published a bestselling book, of the same name.
Lomax is a man obsessed with railways, from childhood. The film tries to convey his riveting account of being a PoW, working on the railways through Burma during World War Two and being tortured by a few of the Japanese. The story is about its effect on his subsequent life.
This effect is now called ‘Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome’ but the term hardly scrapes the surface of suffering which is multifaceted. Some of this suffering is asking God's purpose in allowing us to experience such dreadful things. Characters ask themselves "Why am I alive?" and the answer is "For this moment as reconciliation is my destined role". We hear prisoners in the film desperately reciting Psalm 23 against huge odds and wonder about faith enduring in such a place. Only in later life, does a coincidence help Lomax to confront the emotional damage that torture has had on his mind and marriage, and come to terms with it.
Colin Firth who is excellent at playing serious, agonised and sensitive men is very convincing. Nicole Kidman, improved in my view by a brown wig, is almost better. She plays Lomax’s second wife, a nurse, who supports him through his healing, after finding that her new husband spends days not speaking.
The film is powerful in several ways. First, it is not a post Enlightenment film like so many modern films. Lomax was brought up before the 1960s, so he accepted that conscience is inherent in all of us whatever our culture.
Second, it shows that deep traumas can take decades to heal but that one can emerge intact (able to love again). Third, it praises the quiet supporters in this life such as Lomax’s wife. Fourth, it confronts the torturer with the concept of conscience and forces him to speak truth instead of lies. Under pressure, the man corrects “I was ordered to torture you” to “I tortured you”. Liberals, children of the Enlightenment, believe in ‘the blank slate’ theory of life, that we are all made entirely by our environment and that evil is the result of societal wrongs, and our parenting. But this film, as do Freud and Jung - and Christ - clearly states that we are capable of evil - and fully accountable for it. In taking full responsibility, the torturer finds the thing that has eluded him - peace from the horrible torture of his own conscience.
The basis of the story is that Singapore, defended by 80,000 British and Commonwealth troops, surrendered to the Japanese. Among thousands of British soldiers rounded up and taken into captivity Eric Lomax, a Royal Signals officer and former telecommunications worker for the Post Office are taken into a relaxed captivity. Becoming overconfident, the British began building homemade radios but, as many are sent on to be worked to death on the Bridge over the River Kwai, carrying the railway across Thailand and into Burma, more aggressive Japanese guards became repressive. Lomax is wrongly seen as ‘a spy’ which leads him to being imprisoned, humiliated, tortured and condemned to prison. Lomax returns home, but finds that his torture continues, his marriage breaks down, he becomes estranged from his father and he develops weird and anti-social behaviours due to an inability to 'connect'. Finally the torturer’s identity is revealed and Lomax returns to Asia - to confront him.
I would highly recommend this film for its realism, maturity and its hope. The first ten minutes are among the most romantic I‘ve ever seen, set on a trundling train near the setting of “Brief Encounter” (Carnforth in Lancashire): they brought tears to my eyes. Apparently, the book is ten times better than the film.