A victim from World War II’s “Death Railway” sets out to find those responsible for his torture. Based on a true story.
“The Railway Man” begins in the early 1980s with Eric (Colin Firth) boarding a train in the English countryside. He meets Patti (Nicole Kidman) and they are immediately smitten with each other. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry and Patti moves in with Eric who lives by the sea. Shortly after, he begins having anxiety attacks and he quickly disassociates himself from Patti. She tries talking to him but he won’t talk to her and shuts her out completely. She turns to one of his oldest friends, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) and he reveals that both he and Eric were POWs in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II where they helped build the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, a 258 mile track between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma.
Once captured, Eric and some of his comrades manage to build a radio so that they can bring to their colleagues, news and hope about what’s going on in Europe with Germany and the Allied Forces but the Japanese quickly find the radio and demand to know who built it. After one of the men is beaten unconscious, Eric anxiously steps forward and claims responsibility. Once he does, the Japanese administer to him, beatings, water-boarding torture and other forms of persecution because they believe the radio has the capability to reach their enemy, the Chinese. He claims, over and over, that it was a receiver and only had the capability to receive signals, not send them but they continue to torture him regardless.
Eventually, they are rescued and the Japanese surrender and Eric and his comrades are sent back home but the effects of the torture which he accrued, physical and mental, will stay with him for a long time to come. When Eric discovers in a newspaper article, that the young Japanese officer who was in charge of torturing him, is alive and well, he is afflicted as to whether or not he should tell Patti as he doesn’t want her to leave him if he were to claim revenge. After talking to Finlay, he convinces him to tell her and he does so only to be taken aback when she tells him she’s willing to stand by him no matter what his decision. He comes to terms with what he has to do and then makes his way back to the one place he never thought he would see again, to face the one man he thought was dead and gone.
“The Railway Man” is an astonishing triumph in film-making that demands and rewards your attention. It grabs you from the opening frame and does not let go and stays with you long after the credits have rolled. Colin Firth is an absolute revelation, delivering a performance of nuanced brilliance. When he suffers from his excruciating anxiety attacks and falls to the floor in a fetal position weeping, you just want to reach out and hold him and let him know everything is going to be okay. Nicole Kidman gives a performance of astounding bravery, building her character in the space between Eric’s past and his present, standing by him through thick and thin. It was also invigorating watching this middle-aged couple fall in love with each other so naturally and I can’t remember the last time a love story felt so real.
The movie is about trying to find compassion and forgiveness when what you really want to do, is physically harm the person or persons responsible for whatever nightmare you may have endured. When Eric goes back to the camp he was tortured in, and realizes that it is now a museum which honors the Japanese men who were stationed there, he is enraged. No mention is made of the suffering and anguish that the Japanese bestowed on their prisoners and when he finally sees his persecutor, Nagase (the brilliant Hiroyuki Sanada), he toys with him first, not telling him who he is but when the revelation finally arrives, we can see the look in Nagase’s eyes, that he knows this is his day to die. He doesn’t try to fight it, he knows that what he did was wrong and although he takes pilgrimages each year and helps others to try and make up for the atrocities he committed, he is resigned to the fact that his time has come.
The film is based on a true story so suffice to say, he does not kill Nagase. Both men come to realize that they were young and for the most part, following orders. The Japanese of course, required their soldiers to fight to the death rather than surrender and because they were a warrior culture who believed that to surrender meant you were a coward, this lead to the idea that they could treat the cowards in their care any way that they felt, which included torturing them, working them to death or killing them. When Nagase breaks down and apologizes to Eric for what he did to him, Eric accepts his apology and it was one of the most touching and moving scenes I had ever seen. The two men would go on to become great friends until Nagase died in 2011 and Eric died in 2012, with his wife Patti by his side. “The Railway Man” is a harrowing emotional journey that you will never forget. Very highly recommended.
In stores August 12th