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The Railway Man

30 Apr

The Railway Man – directed by Jonathan Teplisky. BioPic. 116 minutes Color 2013.

★★★

The Story: A middle-aged couple’s new marriage is about to be sabotaged by the history of the husband’s prisoner-of-war experience under the Japanese.~

It is excruciating.

In two senses. One is that the film shows the screaming brutality of the Japanese, their demented rage, their maniacal beatings, their sadistic torture. I lived through that era and remember well “those dirty Japs,” and I wonder now how it was possible for a whole people to behave this way. Now that I say this, I must also say that I got this information from what I have seen in war movies at the time – and this one. But still, inside the Japanese then was the capacity of wolverines. A viciousness so extreme it may be, as suggested by one of its perpetrators here, that it came from their being told that the Japanese could not lose – a lie that triggered the chaos that comes from a sense of unbridled power.

It is excruciating also in that all this is prolonged by a narrative style that asks us to fill in blanks, which we do not have sufficient identification with the characters as given to do. But the real excruciation is the way it is filmed, which is in a sort of perfumed haze, so that nothing is quite immediate. It is as though the whole thing had been slipcovered in makeup like Joan Crawford. It is very pretty and you can never quite get to it.

The story tells of Eric Lomax, a young British radio operator taken when the English army surrendered Singapore. He becomes a car mechanic but conspires with his fellow prisoners to assemble a radio to listen to broadcasts. When the Japanese discover it, he takes responsibility. They torture him to tell what he was broadcasting. He is caged, water boarded, beaten. Over and over. That he survives is astonishing.

A back and forth narrative works well. The corny staging of the resolution does not work well, but is still affecting, and a great moral lesson inheres in it. But it does not inhere in the movie, because the movie lacks internal life. The structure does not correspond to the outer story. The marriage is set aside as a narrative force, for one thing, and for another Nicole Kidman as the wife is miscast. The wife needs to be more ordinary. Kidman, of course, is good, but the part needs to be played by an actress with a broader foundation.

The young Eric Lomax is well cast and played by Jeremy Irvine; he has something of the mouth and the speech pattern of the older Lomax. But, as the older Lomax, Colin Firth is a dead hand. I do not see anything in Colin Firth. He is an actor who just stands there and expects you to do something about it. I do not find him permeable. I do not find his face interesting or sensitive. I do not understand what others see in him or why he should be up there before me. I cannot be for him; I cannot be against him; I find him inert.

And I do not gladly fill in his blanks, nor the enormous spaces between speeches, nor the narrative lacunae in this remarkable story of a moral, brave, and resilient human being.

 
 
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