In Hollywood parlance, they “meet cute” – he stumbles into her first class seat on the train to Edinburgh.
She (Nicole Kidman) is a bit taken aback, but only for a moment. She offers, way too soon, that she’s “newly single.” He is bookish, awkward, slow to pick up on that. His encyclopedic knowledge of rail schedules gives away that he’s really into trains.
His small talk is pattering on about the history of every village, hamlet and landmark they pass by.
“Lancaster – known as the hanging town.”
He is smitten, she is intrigued. So it’s not really a coincidence when he runs into her on a homebound train some days later. Thus begins an adorable love affair and marriage.
But Eric has night terrors, paralyzing seizures of fear set off by a phrase, a song on the radio. Patti, who loves him, needs answers.
“The Railway Man” is about the horrors the people who lived through the “Keep calm and carry on” era didn’t talk about. This slow, uneven drama is a different sort of British prisoner of war movie. And even if it stumbles on its way to its fairly obvious, politically correct conclusion, it’s still worthwhile as a closer read on history than the decades of World War II movies that preceded it.
Because it’s good to remember that the construction of the bridge over the River Kwai wasn’t all British stiff upper lips, jolly-good-sport-playing head games with the Japanese, whistling the “Colonel Bogey March.”
For those who lived through it – prisoners of war worked to death as slave labor under inhuman conditions in the jungles of Thailand – it was a fetid, living hell.
Patti Lomax has to pry information out of Eric’s peers, the men who meet to not talk about what they went through together building that Thai-Burma Railway. Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) is dismissive, but eventually he fills her in on what they all have been living with for 40 years (the movie is set in 1980).
In a long flashback, we see the shameful, seemingly premature surrender of Singapore, which Churchill called “the worst disaster” in British military history. The young radio operators, Eric and Finlay (played as young men by Jeremy Irvine and Sam Reid), pocket vacuum tubes and other radio parts as they line up to march into captivity. But once there, they see the awful consequences of getting caught doing that. They may be needed to keep the few machines the Japanese are using to build this rail line going. But beatings, torture and summary executions are a constant threat.
Director Jonathan Teplitzky cast emaciated men to play many of the prisoners, and took care to get the Japanese right, too, historically. These weren’t the best and the brightest. They were small men, physically, mentally and spiritually, raised on a diet of rice and racism. And they behaved barbarically.
But “The Railway Man” is more interesting as history rewritten than as the moral parable this true story became. As a generation dies out and the tests of those who lived through that era are forgotten, movies like this, even the less satisfying ones, help us remember and appreciate the great wrongs, the scars and the healing power of forgiveness in the face of World War II’s unspeakable cruelty.