January 23, 2018

Posted April 26, 2014 by D. K. Holm



If an alien in whatever sentient form finally (already?) visited the earth she or he or it might think that the primary human emotion on display among the dominant inhabitants is the thirst for revenge, at least based on world of cinema, if the visitor could understand it (most of the natives can’t). It seems as if every film coming out these days is a revenge fantasy of one kind or another, and if not wholly dedicated to revenge, at least the work has a revenge-subplot component.

Take the British imports The Railway Man. This film starts out with Colin Firth as a nerdy train spotter who, during World War II, is captured by the Japanese and tortured for creating a radio. The story proper opens years later when Firth meets Nicole Kidman by chance on the train, responds to her interest in him, woos her or vice-versa and they marry, only for her to discover him, the morning after their wedding night, fetally huddled on the floor in the aftermath of a nightmare — a nightmare that he won’t discuss. Playing Nancy Drew, she invades his veterans’ day-club and interviews one of his pals, played by Stellan Sarsgaard, who tells the new bride as much of the backstory as he or we can absorb. Then halfway through the movie, we learned that the primary camp torturer is still alive and serving as a tour guide in Singapoor. Through a singular and somewhat undue dramatic act, Sarsgaard’s character finally convinces his at-first-reluctant friend to travel solo to Singapoor for revenge. The bulk of the movie’s final quarter is a face-off between victim and victimizer, roles reversed.

Not only is the somewhat predictable main story filled in with a back-and-forth, two-and-the fro from recent past to even more distant military past, but the primary mood of the film is one of strangled national and personal paralysis, in which psychically troubled men sit silent and motionless, staring out at the sea while their minds are filled with thoughts of the unbidden. Kidman strives to become a therapist as well as a wife, but her exhortations aimed at Firth to “just talk it out,” are met with manly self-suppression, interrupted by carping and nagging. Kidman eases elegantly into the role of slightly wilting upper middle-class English flower, and visually and vocally she embodies the slyly romantic, upright girl whom some men dream of saving them. As befits the role, Firth smiles about 1 1/2 times, and Sarsgaard is there usefully to corral the plot forward at a crucial moment. The rest of the time people stare at each other expressionless, for agonizing seconds of screen time.

Though based on a true story published in a memoir by Eric Lomax, Railway feels oddly contrived, and the film itself seems unable to exist outside the sphere of other movies. Or at least the films of David Lean – Brief Encounter, figuratively or symbolically, and Bridge on the River Kwai, literally, provide allusions, and there is a strong dollop of Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence.

Mr. Firth forms for the purposes of the narrative a one-man Truth and Reconciliation Committee, one of those victim restitution meetings in which criminal is invited to piously appease the still-lingering wounds of the survivors. What’s odd about the phase of history from the opening up of Japan to the end of WWII is that in many ways British and Japanese culture bear many similarities, one of the points of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. What is even more odd is that by the terms of the movie, the Japanese were correct in their philosophy of suicide before surrender, and for Mr. Firth’s character it is difficult to live on with the memories of what happens after his surrender. Firth’s character embodies some cinematic confirmation of this notion, doubtlessly against the intentions of the source book and Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky, which obviously wanted to mount an inspiring tale of human dignity in the face of terrible ordeals. “Ironies,” such as the railroad fan forced in confinement to build a rail line for his enemies, are unhighlighted, but the viewer has little confidence that this lack is due to discretion or oversight, since the rest of the movie is obvious, and plummets like a loose train to all its preordained stops.