There’s a moment in The Railway Man where Patti (Nicole Kidman) is pleading Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) for help breaking through to her husband Eric (Colin Firth). He delivers a line of such simple profundity; “war leaves a mark.” Director Jonathan Teplitzky and his amazing cast tell the incredible true story of engineer Eric Lomax (Firth) who is deeply affected by the trauma of World War Two and searching for closure.
A chance meeting on a train leads Eric (Firth) and Patti (Kidman) together. After a swift courtship resulting in marriage Patti moves in and begins to get a taste of into Eric’s internal torment. She learns that working as slave labour for the Japanese on the infamous ‘Death Railway,’ Eric (Jeremy Irvine) suffered unspeakable horrors. She seeks council from fellow soldier Finlay (Skarsgård) to see if she can those mental war wounds yet to heal; but when Finlay offers the location of torturer Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), it will push their love and Eric’s sanity to its limit.
Teplitzky is a wonderful directorial talent. With the flawless Burning Man and now The Railway Man under his belt — I’d claim that he’s the best Australian director working today. There’s a striking use of murky reflections and overexposure that transition into crisp, vivid focus. That sense of organic, unobtrusive editing that feels like you’re exploring and echoing through time and memory. Actions, perspectives even poses occur and reoccur as you’re occupying Eric’s headspace and perspective. In some instances even the way that Eric places his glasses on a table becomes integral to the unfolding story.
The production design is authentic without being opulent and there’s an unflinching approach to the violence of the times without being lured into gratuity. In these cringe-worthy scenes, Teplitzky almost straps you into your seat. Watching Eric (Irvine) splayed across bamboo table’s being clubbed into submission is an image that’s continuing to haunt me. Thankfully screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson do a great job of economising Eric Lomax’s life for maximum potency. For a film that’s thin on dialogue, on several occasions it’s just a relentless barrage of verbal barbs or devastatingly true personal insights. They manage the clash of British soldiers (with a few added colonial representatives) with the occupying Japanese force with the right deft touch, especially as the act of surrender amplifies the cultural clash.
Firth doesn’t know how to deliver a poor performance at this stage of his career. He imbues Eric with all that restrained natural charm but simmering beneath the surface is an acid of apathy. As his emotional episodes crash like waves in a storm he wants to batten down the hatches. Patti’s presence is essential to him confronting those memories that haunt him. Irvine is unbelievable. It’s a physically and emotionally torturous role and his pain leaps out of the screen. There’s an innocence and pre-war naivety that he’s able to bring to young Eric that is just chipped away until he’s retreated into himself, content to die than break or give his torturers satisfaction. Even thinking about his ordeal as I write this, it’s hard to contain my emotions.
Skarsgård’s Finlay is the rock of his men’s group, trying to share what they can in their unit’s monthly gatherings. After a life filled with regret faced with Eric’s sacrifice he’ll do anything to jolt him out of his funk. The usually stoic Sanada (The Last Samurai, Sunshine) is torn down before your very eyes. Seeing Eric Lomax brings the very worst aspects of his life back to his attention and evokes the feeling that his worst fears have come back to life. Kidman’s co-lead performance is essential but she’s in the passenger seat as the demure, concerned Patti. She’s the emotional barometer of the piece surrounded by a generation of men who only shared war with their comrades or bottled it up.
The Railway Man will leave a mark on your soul, not only for the brutal barbarity of war but for the sheer power of screen stories.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: JONATHAN TEPLITZKTY
Written by: FRANK COTTRELL BOYCE and ANDY PATERSON (Based on the memoir by Eric Lomax)
Starring: COLIN FIRTH, NICOLE KIDMAN, JEREMY IRVINE, STELLAN SKARSGARD, HIROYUKI SANADA, SAM REID, TANROH ISHIDA