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Sunday, 26 January 2014

Miming in the choir*

This is a review of The Railway Man (2013)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 January

This is a review of The Railway Man (2013)

* Contains spoilers *

I’m still at war, Eric Lomax comes to realize when he has gone to confront his persecutor, but, before he does so, there is the bulk of one tautly reined and powerful film, amongst whose many strengths are the conviction of the cast, the inventiveness and crispness of its cinematography, and how the highly effective score (by David Hirschfelder) employs instruments as varied as cello, oboe, gamelan and Japanese flute** in an integrated whole, which works with the film despite our consciousness of it.

As a young Lomax, Jeremy Irvine*** more than fulfils the potential that he showed in Now is Good (2012), even catching the rhythms and mannerisms of Colin Firth, his older self, and forming a tight triangle with Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman), the woman whom he loves (known as Patti). Only it will not work as a triangle****, and, despite fellow survivor Finlay’s (Stellan Skarsgård’s) initial dismissals of Wallace as a Florence Nightingale who wants to work on Lomax and who is underestimating what Lomax and he and others went through in captivity under the Japanese army, he agrees to help, acknowledging the happiness that she has brought Lomax.

Lomax’s other love is trains, and we all know the type, which gives a matter of factness that is part of Lomax’s charm and attractiveness. Kidman and Firth handle the scene wonderfully, with the clincher being what the accompanying sailors had been shouting when her older relatives watched Brief Encounter (1945), another triangle, and a promise from Kidman to behave better. Already, in the things that Lomax asks her, we know that he is revealing things about himself, and his view of life, with his suggestions for where she might travel on the Scottish West Coast. He only, though, confirms his feelings to himself by telling another, Finlay, of what happened.

It is a form of validation, and no wonder when we learn of what happened to him in the Second World War (with the worst revealed till last). Finlay only hints at what Lomax’s life was like before he met Wallace, and she only realizes what Lomax’s experiences are like when they have married, but is fiercely loyal to him : she says that she had twenty years in nursing, and she may well have known others who had been hurt by what happened to them.

The scene where we realize what dogs Lomax, with the world of the Burma railway stealing into his mind and obliging him to go back there, against his will and with physical force, is highly imaginative, mixing not so much memory and desire (T. S. Eliot’s verse from the opening of (‘The Waste Land’) as memory and despair. We do not need to be shown again what his inner life is at these times, but we see him struggle to resist change in his life with Wallace, and how the remnants of the past that she finds chill her, but embolden her wish to help her husband.

Nothing in this film feels gratuitous (and it is very graphic in places, which strike home), and things are not shown in the interests of reviving hatred for the perpetrators of these acts on prisoners of war. As the film develops, Lomax knows no more than we what we might do, and the exactness about him that we see in Irvine, when is trying to explain that he really likes trains, is there when he challenges the words that are being used to describe his friends’ and his treatment.

Be reminded that this is a film, and not Lomax’s book – until we get to the end of the film, it opens incomprehensibly, because that is the typical artifice of films, to sow a seed – and the reconciliation and friendship with Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) actually happened quite differently from how portrayed, but would not have made such a good film.

In his acting, Irvine has just the right qualities to be bright eyed, knowledgeable but not brash, in pain, selfless, proud : he is our guide to the older Lomax, and Firth and he mirror each other. To its credit, the film did have the services of a psychiatrist available to it, and it also does not seem improbable that a man who had experienced what Lomax did would have ended up as he does later on in life, though what the onset of that behaviour is unclear.

It seems that Firth and Kidman met Patti and Eric Lomax, and that, although he died before it could be seen, she has supported the film***** and said that Firth caught her late husband on camera. Factually, it telescopes and inverts the order of many things, but this does not seem to have bothered the Lomaxes, who, if so, must have appreciated that telling a story in a film is different from doing so in Lomax’s own writing.

If it encourages people to read The Railway Man (with Lomax's delirious poem), then all to the good, but it does stand complete in itself, and whilst more could be made of the input that Patti Lomax had to her husband’s regaining his equilibrium, doing so was not necessary, because, from the lead performers’ portrayals, we never doubt their love for each other, and that is the strength from which they built.

This film does what it needs to, by evoking bravery, self-sacrifice, and the very depths of love and friendship.


* This is how Finlay, in his role of Uncle to his fellow prisoners when in captivity, describes to Patti his feelings of inadequacy to be a continuing support to them.

** That description may fit a typical East / West musical pastiche, but this is so much better, quite possibly one of the top scores for the last twelve months.

*** Whom it seems Colin Firth suggested for the part.

**** Because Lomax of 1980 is dragged back by the one of 1942 and his experiences from fully being with her. Somehow, the physical hurts then have to be healed in his mental life now, and Lomax is almost certainly subject to, at the very least, post-traumatic stress disorder. Significantly, unlike the Marnie (1964) type of film, she is not the one who (directly) finds him the healing.

***** According to IMDb, The real-life Patti Lomax attended the film's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013. She received a standing ovation upon the screening of the film.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

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