As I become more and more convinced that a film’s moral compass should be a primary criterion for film criticism, many film critics seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Belle is a case in point. Despite being one of the most thought-provoking films in recent years (from a social justice standpoint), it received only middling reviews, with few critics taking its message into account. The reviews for The Railway Man, which has an even more powerful message, this time about war and forgiveness, are on the low side of mediocre. One critic writes: “I think I’d rather have the waterboarding than the movie’s bromides about how we’re all victims and hate must end.” Yeah, let’s not have films that actually say something and contribute to making the world a better place when we can have wonderful action-packed distractions like The Avengers and Captain America.
Unlike Belle, which is only loosely based on facts, The Railway Man, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is based on a true story. Eric Lomax was a British soldier captured by the Japanese in WWII and forced, like thousands of other prisoners, to work on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway. Lomax got into trouble due to his passion for trains and radios and ended up being tortured for weeks or months before rescue forces arrived. While almost half of the film is a flashback to the war, The Railway Man is actually set more than thirty years later. During the intervening years, Lomax has been haunted by nightmares and has shut himself off from the world. But as the film starts, he falls in love with a woman who wants to help him, leading to an eventual confrontation between Lomax and one of his torturers (who is running a war museum at the site of Lomax’s incarceration).
Many of the negative reviews of The Railway Man focus on how quiet and understated the film is (those are my words; the critics say things like “dull as ditchwater”). They also insult the film for being old-fashioned, as if that’s a negative (see my comments on Belle). It’s true The Railway Man doesn’t always do a great job of knowing how to dramatically connect the two very different halves of its story. But I’m sure if it was more dramatic, it would be accused of sensationalizing. It’s really about how one views the pacing of the film. Some will find it a little awkward, but I was mostly impressed. And, for the most part, I appreciated the quiet understated flavour of The Railway Man. If you watch it carefully, the emotional engagement is something you bring to the film as a viewer; it doesn’t have to be sucked out of you by a manipulative filmmaker.
As usual, Colin Firth is brilliant in the lead role (he is perfectly cast) and that is absolutely essential for the emotional engagement mentioned above. Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s wife does what she can in an under-used role. The other acting is solid. The cinematography is beautiful and The Railway Man boasts an excellent score. Combined with the fact that it presents a profound, deeply moving story and you have another solid ***+ film. My mug is up.