Two of the movies that I have seen in recent times – Philomena and now The Railway Man – deal with the issue of a deep personal trauma that affected the main character for years to come. Both are based on true stories, and both deal with the redemptive power of forgiveness in a different way.
Eric Lomax (played so grippingly by Jeremy Irvine and Colin Firth) was a British Army officer in Singapore in 1942 when it fell under the control of the invading Japanese army. He was transported along with his fellow officers to a prisoners’ camp in Burma, where he was forced to help the Japanese build the railway line – along with other prisoners and locals. Being an engineer, he built a primitive radio receiver with parts that were salvaged before they left Singapore. When this was discovered by the Japanese Army, he was blamed as the ringleader – especially when his drawings of the railway line route from Singapore towards Burma, was also found out. His explanation that he was just a railway enthusiast was not accepted. So, out of his fellow officers, he was subjected to a lot more brutalities along with some physical and mental tortures.
Now, what would you do, if years later, you find out that the main tormentor is still alive and works in Burma as a tourist guide in the prisoner complex? Eric Lomax decided to go to Burma and meet his old tormentor – Takashi Nagase (played by Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada).
Jonathan Teplitzky wonderfully directs this movie so it doesn’t descend into a melodramatic mess, nor does he shy away too far from any emotions, so that it belittles the sense of anguish and horror that the Prisoners of War experienced during those years. He infuses a sense of emotional restraint into the scenes – especially when we learn about the older Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) and his relationship with his wife Patti (Nicole Kidman). The drab English weather pictured in the movie also helps to emphasise the underlying emotional issues that were unresolved by the characters. Nicole Kidman plays Patti really well – I didn’t usually like her performance as I sometimes find her insincere with the emotions that she portrays, but for this movie, the restraint feel suits her like a glove. Stellan Skarsgård as Lomax’s friend Finlay – is also heartbreaking as a fellow survivor – who had nobody to share his pains with: a stoic face of a veteran who would’ve benefited from a listening heart.
Ultimately, the story is about forgiveness and letting go – and unlike Philomena where I was un-supposedly angry (and yet amazed) at the simplicity of her forgiveness, The Railway Man deals with it by showing first what could have happened, had Lomax chosen anger and revenge against forgiveness. It’s a beautiful movie that doesn’t preach – and yet, you get the noble message. In the actual words of Eric Lomax, “Some time the hating has to stop”.