The Railway Man, 90 mins, rated TBA, opens 26 December 2013


(This is my review as published in the December 2013 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

Many Australians know it as the “Burma Railway” or the “Thai-Burma Railway”. Some people call it the “Death Railway”. It was built by the Empire of Japan in 1943, the year after the Fall of Singapore, using a captive labour force of about 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 200,000 “romusha”, or Asian labourers. This new Australian/ UK co-production is based on a best-selling memoir, also called The Railway Man, by Eric Lomax (re-released now by Random House). He was a young British Signals Engineer (and, in a supreme irony, a railway enthusiast) taken prisoner when Singapore fell, forced with his fellow Prisoners to work on the railway.

The railway was to run 420 kilometres through rugged jungle in an extremely harsh tropical environment. It had already defeated the attempts of British colonials 40 years earlier. They considered building a railway there but deemed the conditions too dangerous and the logistics impossible. The Japanese expected their labour force to work under horrendous conditions, hacking through rock and jungle with their bare hands. They had to subsist on manifestly inadequate rations.

6,180 British POWs died building the railway, together with at least 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, 356 Americans, plus many Canadian and New Zealanders. It is estimated that around 75,000 romusha also died as well.

This is not just a historical recreation. It is also a psychological investigation of the mind of a man who has undergone the most horrendous experiences, including (because he is discovered to have built a secret radio receiver, in order to hear news of the war’s progress) interrogations, vicious beatings, and worse.

I do not know the structure of the book, but the Australian director of the film Jonathan Teplitsky (The Burning Man (2011), Gettin’ Square (2003)) has chosen to tell the story in a fractured narrative. We begin with a man lying on the ground, reciting a curious poem about time passing and a clock striking. It’s Eric Lomax (sensitively played by Colin Firth). We next see Eric as a loner in a War Veteran’s club, and then we cut to a railway journey, where Eric meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), who will become his wife after a whirlwind romance. It’s what they call in Hollywood “meet cute”, and Firth and Kidman are good together.

 But on their honeymoon, things take a dramatic turn. Something sets Eric off, and in his mind he’s back in the war, in the jungle. He’s on the floor screaming. The rest of the film flashes back and forward in time, while Patti tries to find out what is wrong with Eric, and how she can help him.

In the war sequences, the younger Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine (War Horse, 2011), and his friend, Finlay, by Sam Reid. In the later years, Finlay is played by distinguished Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård (Breaking the Waves, 1996). He plays a key role in unlocking Eric’s secret and, through Patti, propelling him towards a fateful confrontation that could be his undoing or his salvation.

This very tense and moving film is also a challenging one. Some may find the fractured narrative confusing. But we are in good hands: Teplitsky seems to know exactly what he is doing, concentrating on Eric’s personal story, but giving us enough of the facts to understand the context, without giving a full-blown history lesson.

For me, the performances of Kidman, and especially Firth, are key. Some accuse Kidman of being a “cold” actor, but here she sympathetically brings to life a vivacious woman, deeply in love but shut out by her new husband from his mental torment. There’s a moment when Eric says to Patti, cruelly, “This is what happens when you interfere”, and the look on Kidman’s face speaks volumes. And there are already Oscar whispers about Firth’s performance as Lomax.

I think Australian audiences will respond strongly to this personal take on a slice of history that is close to our bones, as well as being reminded that tragically, the spectre of cruel and inhuman torture during wartime is still with us.