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A powerful reconciliation story based on the memoirs of WWII Veteran Eric Lomax, a POW in Thailand, who returns to confront the Japanese officer who tortured him.
Could you shake the hand of the man who once tortured you? Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky asks the same question in this moving epic. World War Two veteran, Eric Lomax survives brutal treatment and torture in a Japanese POW camp but the trauma that he suffers continues long after the war ends. This film follows Lomax’s journey from that of revenge to one of reconciliation when he is finally able to confront his torturer decades later. Unsentimental, yet at times deeply disturbing, the film is a testament to the power of forgiveness.
As the film’s title suggests, trains are an integral part of the film, Lomax being a life-long train enthusiast. A chance romantic encounter on a train between Eric Lomax (played with great conviction by Colin Firth) and the recently divorced Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) in a comfortable train carriage with the countryside gliding serenely past the windows establishes the present day story. It has all the appearance of a vintage romance, with references made to David Lean’s film Brief Encounter. The wartime experiences of the young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) also begin on a train, retold in the form of long flashbacks, which work well to illustrate how past traumatic events infringe on the present with an alarming and unpredictable presence. This time it is 1942 and Singapore has been taken by the Japanese. Lomax is travelling in an overcrowded goods wagon with no windows, in searing heat, a POW on his way to work on the notorious Thailand-Burma railway known as the “’Death Railway”.
In the 1980s, life for the staid, middle-aged Lomax, who reads train timetables and visits the veterans club in Berwick-Upon-Tweed, changes when he meets Patti. The baggage that finally arrives, after the vows have been exchanged, however, is not so predictable, as his new wife Patti discovers. What initially appears to be the odd behaviour of an eccentric obsessed with trains is actually that of a man deeply traumatised by his experiences in captivity; he endures terrifying flashbacks of his former torturer, the young Japanese Army Officer, Tagashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida).
Just when we think Patti will pack her bags, she confronts fellow veteran Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) to reluctantly break the code of silence and tell her what happened to her husband at the POW camp. Whilst her role is instrumental to the story, her character frustratingly never seems to go beyond that of a supporting role, lacking the emotional depth of the other main characters. Initially Kidman plays the glamorous stranger on the train in glossy brown bob, but then becomes the passive, suffering wife, anxiously looking on as her husband’s bizarre behaviour gradually unfolds (Rachel Weisz originally cast in this role, dropped out due to scheduling conflicts). This does not however, undermine the overall power of the film. The young Lomax is played sensitively by Jeremy Irvine, who insisted on filming longer scenes of torture than the director intended. Hiroyuki Sanada, likewise, sets his heart on playing the role of the older Nagase, keen to inform the next generation of Japanese about the darker moments of WWII history.
The mirroring of roles enhances the dramatic impact of the story. We agonise as we see Lomax show great courage standing forward to face the harsh retribution of the Japanese guards only to later see the mirror image of his young interrogator Nagase standing forward, claiming to be just an interpreter not a torturer, to save himself.
Teplitzky, the director of Burning Man (about a traumatised British chef who acts out his grief by venting his anger) deals with similar themes to great emotional effect in The Railway Man. Lomax continues to suffer the debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress and is consumed with hatred towards his interrogator, Nagase. When he learns Nagase managed to escape death as a war criminal and is conducting tours of the internment camp, he has every intention of killing him. In reality this was made all the worse for Lomax, revenge going against his religious faith which curiously isn’t developed up to this point, fundamental though it was to his survival as a POW. This aspect, if developed, could have enriched the story and added to the dramatic irony. It is only when Lomax discovers that his torturer also suffered crippling guilt and horrifying flashbacks and is desperate for atonement, that he can finally find forgiveness. The closing words “Sometimes, the hating has to stop” sum up the need for reconciliation and forgiveness, which echo the theme of Lomax’s memoirs.
There is a sincerity about this film, Teplitzky and the film’s producer, Andy Paterson having worked closely with Eric Lomax before his death in October 2012 to convey the emotional truth of his ordeal with the seriousness and respect that the subject matter deserves. It speaks for all those Far East POWs who were condemned to suffer in silence for decades, having signed an undertaking on liberation that they would not talk about the war crimes they witnessed, for the sake of the West reconstructing Japan as an ally and fearing the resurfacing of painful memories.