Thursday, April 24, 2014

'The Railway Man': off and on track

A compelling story told with sporadic effectiveness.
A young but resourceful British soldier during World War II, Eric Lomax became a prisoner of war, part of the legion of British captives and Asian workers forced to toil on construction of the Thailand to Burma railroad.

The Railway Man -- a movie about Lomax's experiences -- is at its most effective when depicting the brutalizing torture Lomax experienced at the hands of the Japanese after he was caught with a radio and a map.

The Japanese insisted Lomax was trying to communicate with China. In reality, he and his imprisoned pals were listening to war news on a radio that couldn't transmit. Lomax, a long-time train enthusiast, used the map to chart the course of the line.

Colin Firth plays Lomax as a man suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, a veteran whose experiences -- which included water-boarding -- keep him from fully engaging in his marriage to a Canadian woman (Nicole Kidman). Lomax and Kidman's Patti met in 1980 -- on a train, of course.

Director Jonathan Tiplitzky complicates the story by lacing it with flashbacks -- some springing from Lomax's tormented psyche and some from a recounting of events by one of Lomax's war-time pals, a miscast Stellan Skarsgard.

Kidman's Patti pushes Lomax to share experiences he's kept bottled up since the end of the war. Kidman gives the expected fine performance, but her presence in the film proves a little tangential.

Jeremy Irvine effectively plays the younger Lomax in flashbacks to the war.

Eventually, the post-war Lomax returns to the scene of the Japanese war crimes he endured. He fully expects to kill one of his surviving torturers (Hiroyuki Sanada), a man who's now earning a living conducting what Skarsgard's character refers to as "Bridge on the River Kwai tourism."

The big issue -- no less powerful for being obvious -- involves the conflict between Lomax's understandable desire for revenge and his need for reconciliation.

The big confrontation scene between the British veteran and his Japanese tormenter almost shrinks the movie into a play on film, but Sanada and Firth make it powerful nonetheless.

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