Eric is obsessed with trains and engineering – it’s something of a passion for him. But this lifelong fascination was severely tested many years ago during World War 2, and he has buried deeply painful memories from all but a few who were there to witness the events that caused him such trauma, even to the person closest to him.
The Railway Man could, in some ways, be seen as a link between two David Lean films, Brief Encounter (1945) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with its romantic railway encounter at the opening that eventually links with the construction of the Burma railway by prisoners of war in horrific circumstances. The Railway Man is based upon a true story as told in the autobiography of the titular railway man Eric Lomax, and the film is carefully constructed to ensure that the revelations from the past are revealed to the viewer in the same manner as they became apparent to Eric’s wife Patricia (Nicole Kidman) as she seeks to understand the reasons for the way that her husband reacts to certain situations.
1980. Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is getting plenty of railway time in ahead of a return trip to his home of Berwick-upon-Tweed. On the train he encounters a lady, Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman), and they engage in conversation, she being amused and impressed by his remarkable knowledge of train timetables and destinations. He’s smitten and, being an old romantic, makes sure that he meets her when she is due to arrive at a particular destination. The technique works and the couple are soon married but then the problems begin to emerge. Eric has bouts of serious depression and former nurse Patricia feels she could help her husband if only she understood the depths of the problems. ‘I love him and I want him back,’ she declares to Eric’s friends. The British Legion are partly aware of the cause of his problems, but won’t reveal why, despite his obvious love of trains, ‘he won’t talk about the railway.’ The reason, becomes clear when Patricia discovers that Eric (played in the flashback sequences by Jeremy Irvine) was one of the countless prisoners of war, forced into labour to construct the Burma railway in Kanchanaburi, Thailand following the invasion of Singapore in 1942. Eric’s treatment at the hands of the Japanese was appalling and barbaric. Many years later, he discovers a newspaper clipping showing that one of his torturers is still alive and he feels compelled to return to that location, to kill the man who tortured him. But can he reconcile the past and the shocking treatment he endured?
Central to The Railway Man is the theme of coming to terms with the past, understanding what that past was and exploring the consequences of returning to it. Eric’s present, past and future all hinge upon a series of events that unfolded during his experiences in World War 2 which left him physically and mentally scarred. The Railway Man shows a portion of the horrors that unfolded but in telling its story it does not make such depictions overly graphic except, appropriately, on a psychological level. The resulting film therefore never becomes a propaganda piece despite the atrocities that occurred to the people who suffered them by those who instigated them. Eric eventually seeks the oppressor whom he views as fundamental to his savage torture – Japanese oppressor Takashi Nagase(Hiroyuki Sanada). Nagase, being an interpreter, was the only person who could communicate with his prisoners and was intrinsic to Eric’s barbarous interrogation. In a [spoiler for those unaware of the story] Eric returns to Burma and finds Nagase as a guide at a museum depicting the scenes and events of the atrocities. Inevitable confrontation evolves into forgiveness and reconciliation. The two men eventually formed a friendship.
The Railway Man is moving, human and beautifully acted, showing humanity’s ability to be brutal beyond comprehension and forgiving beyond belief.