The Railway Man, based on the 1995 bestselling autobiography of Eric Lomax, is an Oscar-caliber film of high emotion and honorable modesty that deserved better than to be sidetracked to Hollywood's shoulder months, where serious-minded fare goes to be readily forgotten. In a more perfect world, a film of this heft, with stellar performances from Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, would have been showcased at year's end, sending Firth and Kidman to the Motion Picture Academy's big party, where each has previously picked up top acting prizes--his for The King's Speech, hers for The Hours. But their latest work may also be their finest.
Eric Lomax (Firth), is The Railway Man-- loving anything to do with railroads. We first meet him in the 1980s, quite naturally, on a train. He's rumpled and a bit bumbled; he's also a World War II veteran. When he's not poring over railroad schedules or riding trains, which is where he meets Patti, he's usually meeting with his fellow vets at the local pub.
"I have a small problem which I suspect this gathering might find interesting," he tells his colleagues. "I've fallen in love."
In short order, Eric marries Patti (Kidman), a retired nurse who is also a bit adrift herself. Their love affair is a rare blend of the physical and intellectual that requires--and masterfully achieves--supreme chemistry between Firth and Kidman.
But as Patti's love fills Eric's heart, she also awakens deeply entrenched memories from decades prior, when Eric was a soldier in the British army and, particularly, a prisoner of war. In December 1941, as Japanese bombers were launching their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, they were also invading Thailand, taking legions of British soldiers as their prisoners. The Japanese embarked on an ambitious project--building a 258-mile railway through mountainous jungle terrain from Thailand to Burma, using nearly 60,000 POWs as forced laborers. Despite nearly 10,000 men dying during the building of what would become known as the "death railway," this cruel chapter of World War II is, quite inexplicably, mostly forgotten.
That is, except for the men who survived the barbarism.
The Railway Man details the barbarism of building the "death railway," and many of director Jonathan Teplitsky's scenes, filmed in Thailand, are epic, and something rarely seen since the days of director David Lean.
Which quickly brings to mind Lean's own Bridge on the River Kwai, another high-minded telling of a specific chapter of the World War II. Lean's film won seven Academy Awards in 1958, including Best Picture. And, in my estimation, The Railway Man is, pound for pound, an estimable companion piece.
An important word of caution: please don't shy away from The Railway Man because of its subject matter. Yes, this is a movie about the cruelty of war, but don't confuse this with other films about returning veterans, such as Coming Home or The Deer Hunter. I have serious reservations about the many movies that continue to portray veterans as threats to society. Yes, there is bitter truth in their trauma, but the Hollywood stereotype of the "tiicking time bomb vet" needs to stop. Instead, The Railway Man asks us to accept a more compelling tale of a veteran that confronts his past and miraculously learns to stop hating those responsible for his torture.
"For some reason, trains and torture have been intimately linked in the course of my life," Lomax wrote in his 1995 autobiography. "Yet, through some chance combination of luck and grace, I have survived them both."
Through some amount of luck and grace of my own, It was my great fortune to meet the cast and 78-year-old Patti Lomax at the world premiere of this magnificent film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
"You feel a responsibility to be as truthful as you can to Eric's story," Firth told BW. "There's something very special about being trusted. Plus, to meet the people you're playing is an enormous benefit."
And indeed Firth spent time with Lomax during the filming of The Railway Man. Lomax passed away in October 2012 so he didn't survive to see the end result of his masterwork, but his wife insisted on flyng "across the pond" to attend the Toronto premiere.
"Unless a veteran, whether he's from World War II or the war in Afghanistan, can get some real help for himself and his family, his trauma will color all of their lives," Patti Lomax said following the screening. "No matter how bleak life might be, there is a way forward if you're willing to see it."
The critics' screening at TIFF received some polite applause but during the film's sold-out public engagement, there were cheers and plenty of tears, including my own in both viewings.
As a point of full disclosure, I should note that I'm the son of a World War II vet who took too many of his own secrets of war and the evil that men do to his grave--this movie struck more than a few of my own personal nerves. I'm a fan of Firth's, so it came as no surprise that his portrayal of Eric was so delicately balanced. But Kidman, who has been on-again/off-again in so many of her latest film choices, is simply remarkable in her (quite-literally) supporting performance as Patti.
"What can I say? When Colin Firth asks me to do a film, I say 'yes,'" Kidman told BW on the red carpet in Toronto. "So yes, a big reason I'm in this film is Colin."
The Railway Man is a particular story of one man and one woman. But its eternal themes of revenge and salvation are fully realized. For anyone who has ever loved or cared for a victim of trauma, The Railway Man is required viewing. And for anyone who simply loves the movies, this is the one that somehow got away from Oscar.