How a movie this good could stay so far under the radar can only be due to a lack of money for promo. Ah, indies … some of the best movies ever but with minuscule budgets.
“The Railway Man” is a must-see. It’s based on the true story of a British Army officer, Eric Lomax (played by Oscar-winner Colin Firth), who was captured during the fall of Singapore in 1942. He and thousands of other soldiers were forced to work on the railway from Burma to Siam as slave laborers under deplorable conditions.
Jeremy Irvine (“War Horse”) plays the young soldier we see through gripping flashbacks. After his capture at the River Kwai prison camp during World War II, Lomax is able to assemble a crude radio to connect with the outside world. Unfortunately, the enemy discovers his radio. Even though it was a team effort, Lomax steps forward “like a man” to take all the blame.
The sadistic Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) systematically breaks Lomax down like a beaten warhorse. He’s locked in a cage, relentlessly tortured and starved. The Scot shows an incredible durability as his mind and body deteriorate under the hands of his horrid captors.
Lomax survived his nightmare and wrote a memoir about a broken life and his remarkable chance for revenge. Forty years after his scourge, Lomax discovers Nagase (now played by Hiroyuki Sanada) working as a tour guide in a Japanese war museum. With murder on his mind, Lomax goes to confront Nagase.
“The Railway Man” is also a powerful love story and about the strength Lomax gains along the road to overcoming severe PTSD (before anybody knew what to call it). Lomax owes his unlikely recovery to meeting the right woman by chance. Patti (Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman), a nurse, feels an overwhelming connection to this stranger she meets on a train. Poor thing has no idea what she’s getting into, but she stands by her man.
Stellan Skarsgard, in a cameo, plays Lomax’s fellow soldier and good friend, Finlay. (Sam Reid of the “Hatfields & McCoys” TV series plays the younger version.) Finlay is the one who breaks the soldiers’ code of silence and tells Patti Lomax what her husband went through during the war.
The screenplay, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, was adapted from Lomax’s 1995 memoir about his gruesome ordeal. “The Railway Man,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky (“Burning Man”), has a slightly slow start but soon becomes completely absorbing and has a very satisfying ending.
Firth was lucky enough to spend time with Lomax and his wife Patti while researching his role. “It was important to me to meet them, it focused me, and it was something that was very sobering, but also the story is such a big one and about a generation prior to my own, it can feel a bit abstract, a little bit out of reach, but to meet Eric personalized it and humanized it,” Firth said in a press release about the movie.
Irvine also spent time with Lomax. “He never forgot — and he suffered until the day he died,” he said. “The film barely touches on what they did to him. The reality is too horrific.”
During one take of the waterboarding scene, Irvine almost choked. “I threw up a load of water, and they kept it in the movie,” he said.
The already-slim Irvine had to lose 30 pounds to play the starved soldier. To lose the weight, he was eating one can of tuna per day, but the hunger made him hallucinate, and the actor’s parents grew very worried. “I became obsessed by food, and I wasn’t very much fun to be around,” he shared.
Lomax was a consultant for the script, and he visited the movie set. Irvine recalled seeing Lomax’s face light up when he spotted the rail track used to move the cameras, but by the time they began shooting the film, he was very frail. Lomax died at the age of 93 in 2012, so he never got to see the final film.
That’s probably a good thing, though. Reliving those days of imprisonment would’ve been excruciating.
Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.