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'The Railway Man': Grueling, brilliant, and beautiful

The Railway Man

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What does it take to move beyond a trauma of the past?

Colin Firth faces past and future
Colin Firth faces past and future
The Weinstein Company

To speak it openly and thus diffuse it into the mists of time? To tuck it deep inside, cloistered and compartmentalized and hopefully contained? Can, in fact, it even be done at all? And if not, what then?

These are questions faced by British war veteran Eric Lomax as the conflict roiling within him begins taking a toll never anticipated.

Based on his autobiographical account, "The Railway Man" introduces us to Lomax in 1980 as he shares a bit of a conundrum with his friends at the veterans’ club. A lifelong railway enthusiast (a bit of an understatement, today the term would be an affectionate “railway geek”), Lomax had by chance encountered a lovely woman on the train, stepped off at his station, and promptly realized he may well have just met The One.

I won’t spoil the charms of his pursuit, but suffice to say they marry (that’s a spoiler, but not one that affects the story yet is necessary to discussing the film). All seems idyllic, but now in daily close quarters it’s not long before Patti realizes that Eric suffers from what today we recognize as acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from his experiences in a WWII Japanese prison camp.

Upon consulting with Eric’s close friend and fellow prisoner Finlay, Patti comes into the information that the man responsible for this is still alive and well and with known whereabouts. Finlay has never shared this information with Eric in deference to Eric’s chosen methods of coping (such as they were), but Patti is adamant that some fresh approach be taken. Thus begins Eric’s literal and figurative journey toward looking the past squarely in the eye and putting it in its place.

It’s been said, by prisoners of war, by concentration camp survivors, and by others of such experience, that there’s no point in speaking of what happened because either the other person has experienced it and already understands, or they have not and cannot possibly begin to understand. Either way, discussion is pointless.

The argument is sound, but its logical conclusion is not. This, because it assumes that the healing is borne of the other's understanding, and as Eric learns, and his journey demonstrates, the speaking is not about being understood, it’s about being witnessed. And sometimes, you just never know, it results in the unlikeliest outcome imaginable.

"The Railway Man" is a strikingly beautiful film, and one that deserves discussion come next springtime. Whether or not it will earn a place among the best picture nominees will depend on the current pack ("Prisoners" and "Rush" would definitely have been contenders any other year but that crazy-good 2013), but it should be on the agenda in any case.

Boasting a score from David Hirschfelder that is a character unto itself (think Thomas Newman), "The Railway Man" also enjoys strong direction and cinematography as well as deeply relatable performances in extremely difficult tasks. The casting is beautiful in portraying Eric and Japanese officer Nagase as younger and elder pairs, and all four men may be very proud of their work indeed. Sam Reid is building one hell of a body of work (we’ll talk more about that next month); Nicole Kidman does her usual good work in a role that isn’t her most demanding. She enjoys an easy chemistry with Firth, and fans of both will be pleased.

Hiroyuki Sanada in particular is to be commended, given that as the elder Nagase he was charged with receiving Eric’s and our wrath in such a way that we could feel justice was served yet remain clearheaded enough to consider his position on things. It was a task of deceptive and pivotal complexity, and I hope Sanada is duly appreciated for this by future casting directors.

I did trip a little structurally with regard to the introduction of the depth of Eric’s distress; as presented, it seems to have essentially ambushed Patti. While Eric alludes to feeling broken before the wedding, there was nothing to indicate the intensity of what he was dealing with, to the extent that it almost seemed something must have triggered it, reactivating it from suppression into ferocity.

One could cite the reality that once we marry, all the baggage starts getting unpacked (hence the term, “the honeymoon is over”), but this went far beyond the power struggle inherent in blending two lives into one. And given that it was 1980, it’s unclear as to why Patti would have so little awareness of just how badly Eric was suffering; at least in American culture, a pair – especially one this age - would have been more intimately acquainted before marriage with regard to finances, plans for décor, and likely even bad dreams in bed at night. I don’t see how Eric could have (or indeed would have) hidden level of this affliction during the courtship, and if it were triggered along the way, we needed to have seen that moment.

All this said, it doesn’t affect the story itself, but rather bears mention just from a filmmaking perspective (for that springtime debate, remember).

I’m also hearing rumblings that "The Railway Man" is too long, that there were too many drawn out shots. I’ll grant that this may feel so to many viewers and warn you about that, but this goes back to the “if you haven’t experienced it you can’t imagine it” argument. There was much processing going on during those pauses, and if it doesn’t resonate with you, then just bear witness to it (and thank your lucky stars it doesn’t make sense).

"The Railway Man" puts another glorious feather into Colin Firth’s impressive hat, and brings us another beautiful entry in the cinematic annals of slaying one’s dragon and discovering the remarkable beauty that can come from that.

Story: The true story of British former Allied soldier Eric Lomax and his journey to confront the Japanese officer responsible for his torture during WWII.

Genre: Drama, true story

Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Stellan Skarsgård, Sam Reid, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tanroh Ishida

Directed by: Jonathan Teplitzky

MPAA: R

Official site: http://railwayman-film.com/

Running time: 116 minutes

Houston release date: April 25, 2014

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Apr 22nd 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX