Monday, 20 January 2014

Film Review: The Railway Man (2013)

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Screenplay: Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada, Jeremy Irvine and Stellan Skarsgård

In the final act of The Railway Man, it occurred to me this true story of a former British POW who worked on the Burma Railway only to discover one of his former captors was alive and well 40 years later, was a truly excellent film destined for Oscar glory. That film, unfortunately, was the one now playing in my head, because the one unfolding on the screen was played far too safe too really make the impact the story deserved.

That’s not to say director Jonathan Teplitzky’s telling of The Railway Man isn’t a solid film but I feel the material probably couldn’t have been made into anything less than a ‘good’ film in the hands of any number of competent film makers. What holds the film back is its aim to be accessible to all audiences because nothing is left unsaid and nothing is left for the audience to contemplate because everything is right there on the screen. The film is very safe and doesn’t take any risks in the storytelling or narrative which is fine to a degree but frustrating when you think of what could have been achieved.

The main storyline of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) finding one of his former captors, Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), a Japanese translator in the war, is alive and living in the same place Lomax was held prisoner and forced in to labour, needed to be brought into the film far sooner than it is and is given too little time to even scratch the surface of the men’s feelings and emotions. The fact that Lomax and Nagase remained friends for over 20 years after their meeting is crying out for themes such as forgiveness, trauma, the lasting psychological effects of war, and friendship to be explored in much greater depth than here.

The screenplay needs a rewrite from beginning to end, although all the major components are in place. The film might have benefitted if it started with Lomax on his journey from England to Southeast Asia, already in the knowledge that Nagase is alive, and with the anger and unfulfilled closure burning in his heart from the moment the film begins. Flashbacks to his torture and his interactions with Nagase would have had more impact to this particular story with the audience knowing a showdown is approaching, and moreover, the conversations between the men could have played out far longer than Teplitzky’s film allows. Just two men with so much personal history and so many unresolved emotions who never thought they would ever lay eyes on each other now finally get to say how they feel four decades on. Certainly the film gives us this, but it’s all too quickly packaged up and resolved.

The film spends too much time with Lomax’s wife (Nicole Kidman) who is clearly acting as the audience surrogate, asking questions and trying to understand her husband’s past. Again, this is safe screenwriting as Patti isn’t needed to tell this story, and an actress of Nicole Kidman’s talent and stature feels out of place in this film. Her Q and A partner is also just an exposition character disguised as someone more important because he’s played by another talented actor, Stellan Skarsgård. Both are fine in their roles, but their characters distract the film from the crux of its themes.

With a script focused on dramatising the meeting between Lomax and Nagase, I could imagine Ron Howard tackling this material, a film maker who has shown us his expert ability to tell a story of two very different men bound by a common goal or experience (Rush, Frost/Nixon). A different script could have given Colin Firth and Hiroyuki Sanada material to really get to grips with, and make the audience think of both sides of story. Could we forgive this man? Would we want to take his life? Would we even go back to the place which forever changed our life? Can we understand our enemy as a man, not a monster? All these questions are barely touched upon and it’s a great shame.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Despite my trying to rewrite the screenplay in this review, The Railway Man is a good film for what it is, but the material has the potential to give us something unforgettable and something which might have been one of the year’s best films.

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