Monday, May 19, 2014

The Railway Man (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway 
The Railway Man

Director Jonathan Teplitzky's "The Railway Man" about the real life torture of British soldier, Eric Lomax, detained for five years during WWII, by the Japanese has a strong solid performance by Colin Firth. The actor possesses an understated strength that's impossible to deny. Yet the film as an entertainment and an historical memoir in a dramatic format, suffers from a heavy handed treatment, a manipulation of heartwrenchings, that feels pre-digested and preachy.
Firth stars as Lomax, a retired and somewhat reserved man obsessed by trains. Coming back from a rail-centric auction concerning a rare book, he meets the bright and charming Patti (Nicole Kidman). Not much is given about her except that she is a nurse and she loves Eric deeply. All things seem pink and rosy, until she notices a severe withdrawal impulse in Eric, combined with fits of anger and anxiety. 
He is predisposed to hoarding and when pressed he shuts down all communication. At times, Eric is shown shrieking and tangled on the floor.

Frustrated and anxious, Patti meets with Eric's best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) who tells her that some men endure  things. He tells Patti to accept the unknown in Eric's heart. 
Meanwhile, Eric has terrible PTSD episodes and flashbacks as a tortured captive by the Kempeitai and more specifically by a man known as Mr. Nagase played as a young man by Tanroh Ishida. Eric is horribly beaten and brutally water boarded. Every bone in his body appears shattered. He is caged and thrown into a black cell, left to die. His crime is covertly building a radio.
Eric is found by Allied Forces but he is a silhouette of his former self. He joins a support group led by Finlay but can't integrate. 
Finlay tells him that Nagase is alive and giving railway tours, earning a living as a docent in a war museum. Eric is urged to confront Nagase and kill him.
Firth has verve and veracity throughout with much of the emotional tension given in restrained nonverbal passages which make the somewhat formulaic events of pain sweat and savage violence something more than just a shriek-fest on par with Eli Roth of torture porn.
Skarsgard, also, is riveting as the blunt confidant, his face a mask of passivity with ice blue eyes that wait for an unavoidable abyss. With his smoky, quasi-sarcastic voice, he is the embodiment of circumstance without moral judgment akin to actor Max von Sydow.
But when Eric goes on his quest with a knife to settle the score, facing his torturer, the now mellow Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), events go more bronchially-imperiled than Bronson, and events swerve into a little "Death Wish." Instead of moving to a more daring and thoughtful key, the music swells to Spielberg's shores and letters are written with more torture interspersed in flashbacks. Tender words are exchanged and reflected upon with knives "plunged in the heart," all this while the "hate must stop."
The message is well taken and worthwhile. Yet with all the bone crunching (as real as it is)  pensive looks on cue blended so homogeneously with a floating orchestration, this account feels more a generic Hollywood war film  and less like a unique experience, meaningful and engaged. Firth is energized and sincere and Sanada matches him step for step, as a grateful echo, but with such platitudes it all feels spun in a predictable loop.
Given that there have been so many war films on torture, "The Railway Man" thirsts for a bit of arrhythmic haiku to couple with its very real sensorily-numbing newsreel horrors.

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