TIFF 2013: War and Remembrance

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Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in The Railway Man.
  • Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in The Railway Man.

Many of us struggle to find the deep recess of our heart reserved for forgiveness.

No so for Eric Lomax.

His epic story is not well known by many Americans, but Brits know Lomax from his extraordinary 1995 autobiography The Railway Man, which I am thrilled to say has been adapted into a magnificent film starring Oscar winners Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman as Lomax and his wife, Patti, who met—quite appropriately—on a train.

Lomax liked to call himself "a railway enthusiast." Not a trainspotter, mind you. He loved the schedules, the rails, the engines: everything to do with rail transportation. So it was particularly cruel irony that, when he was captured during World War II, Lomax and his battalion were forced by the Japanese to build the Burma Railway, the notorious "Death Railway." Lomax was beaten to near-death and suffered unbearable torture while watching many of his comrades perish.

"We don't talk about it. No one would believe it," one of the survivors tells Lomax's wife.

"I love him, and I want him back," she responds.

Lomax remained a prisoner of his days long after the war, as his nightmares regularly frightened Patti. In one of her best performances in years, Kidman is extraordinary in her never-over-the-top interpretation. As for Firth, he is back on top here, with his finest work since The King's Speech.

Lomax's journey to survival and even forgiveness is astonishing. But a word of caution: This is very old-school filmmaking and may not be to the liking of younger audiences, who prefer their war stories told in a faster pace, like The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty. Older audiences, particularly those of the "greatest generation," are more likely to embrace The Railway Man, with its similarity to films like Bridge on the River Kwai or War Horse.

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Universal themes of war and remembrance were also prevalent in another fine movie, quite coincidentally from Japan, that I screened in the final hours of the Toronto International Film Festival.

The Wind Rises is reportedly the final feature-length film written and directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, director of such classics as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro.

The Wind Rises tells the story of a Japanese boy who dreams of flying but ends up designing fighter planes for the Imperial Forces during World War II. The fim is a gorgeous tale of regret and rebirth and is, without exception, the best animated feature of 2013 and is certainly Oscar-bound.

As I stood in line to see both films, I grabbed a Toronto newspaper to catch up on the headlines of the day, most of them screaming about the evil that men do and how close we are to more global conflict.

How soon we forget. How long we suffer.