Captured by the Japanese in 1942, Eric Lomax was sent to Kanchanaburi, Thailand where he and his fellow PoWs were forced to build the notorious Burma Railway which claimed over 100,000 lives. While on the railway, Lomax constructed a small transistor radio so he and his fellow prisoners might receive news of the war. Discovery of this radio led to Lomax being tortured by the Japanese security forces and he came close to death.
Decades later, relocating from his native Edinburgh to Berwick upon Tweed, Lomax read in a newspaper that one of his torturers had converted to Buddhism and was now leading tours of the Death Railway for tourists. Persuaded by his new wife, Patti, to confront his former abuser, Lomax managed to not only forgive the man but to become his friend.
It’s an astounding and inspiring true story, and Lomax’s own memoir is something I’d recommend to anyone. But this film adaptation, though not terrible, falls short of doing the tale justice. The cast are solid and the burgeoning romance between Patti (Nicole Kidman) and Eric (Colin Firth) are the best in the film. A special mention must go, also, to Jeremy Irvine (best known for playing young Albert in Spielberg’s sugary War Horse) who is excellent as a young Colin Firth.
Unfortunately, it is during Irvine’s wartime scenes that the film fails to convince. Due to lacklustre direction and what seems like a lack of budget, the film never captures the sweaty desperation of jungle PoW camps as in films such as Rescue Dawn, The Deer Hunter and, of course, the definitive Death Railway film, Bridge Over The River Kwai.
The war scenes form a shaky bridge to the final third of the film in which Lomax heads to Thailand to meet his torturer, initially with a view to killing him. These scenes should have been gripping but were, instead, merely perfunctory as, for the most part, was the rest of the film.
That a film about the fundamentals of the human condition could fall so strangely flat and be devoid of emotion is one of the mysteries of the movie business. As well as the top-notch cast, screenwriting duties are performed by Liverpool’s own Frank Cottrell Boyce who has penned some of the best British movies of recent years, as well as the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony.
But something has definitely gone awry here and this critic would put money on interference from the money-men. Everything about The Railway Man reeks of compromise and a mealy-mouthed attempt to please a mythical demographic who like movies about war, but can’t handle too much death and destruction. The result is neutered, plodding and dull. Not what Eric Lomax deserves; read the book instead.
Review by Ian Winterton
The Railway Man is on general release in the UK from January 10, 2014