Has it ever occurred to contemporary commercial filmmakers that maybe audiences could take a movie’s word for it that a character has been tortured? That perhaps implication and skilled acting could communicate the idea with sufficient power, and that we might all be spared the screaming and limb-breaking and slow-motion violation of the body? That maybe brutal victimization and the stripping away of humanity is not necessarily an opportunity for a setpiece? That the familiarity of violent interrogation scenarios from so many movies and TV shows demands that each new entry be more harrowing than the last? That watching such horror again and again so diminishes such horror, both as an onscreen effect and a real-world fact, that clods like Sean Hannity yammer on sometimes about how it wouldn’t bother them to be waterboarded?
Yes, there’s torture in Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man, one of those based-on-a-true-story prestige jobs that you might be wish had been told in documentary format. The story is incredible, wise, and humane, and it might have been more effectively told — narrated, with a journalistic bent — than it is shown here. The things in British Army officer Eric Lomax’s memoir that matter most are just what conventional film drama tends to duff: grief and healing over the course of a life; the plodding misery of a marriage starved of communication; the fresh, slow turning of gears long stuck inside a quiet man.
Capturing strangled interiority is one of narrative cinema’s greatest challenges, so it’s no surprise that to suggest the trauma that haunts Lomax (Colin Firth) The Railway Man borrows the visual language of much simpler hauntings. Years after World War II, Lomax marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), who does not know that he suffered protracted torture in a Japanese prison camp. She knows something’s up, though, because in the spare bedroom of their creepy old home the wardrobe flaps open and hanging inside is just one thing: Lomax’s old uniform. Such ghost-story literalism reduces the actual agony suffered by the actual Lomax to movie nonsense. The memories are coming from inside the house!
The Railway Man proves more successful showing us the kinds of things movies today are successful at, namely guys doing stuff. There’s brooding power in early shots of shaken-up Lomax dwarfed by the railroad bridges that afford him a steady, sturdy pleasure. He’s a train enthusiast, but the title refers even more directly to the ordeals he faced as a P.O.W. at the end of the war, which we see in well-realized flashbacks. Lomax and his company are captured by the Japanese and forced to toil on the construction of railroad line running from Burma to Thailand. As with those scenes of bridges, Teplitzky favors gliding the camera past men framed against a larger world. We witness the laborers’ muddied, bloodied limbs and, over time, the increasing meagerness of their bodies; we also see history behind them, grand and messy and overbearing. As the young Lomax, Jeremy Irvine is all innocent bustle, even as he’s screaming his head off in pain; Firth, meanwhile, is too often left staring off into space, the movie’s method of letting us know a memory’s coming on.
These flashbacks are themselves a feat of impressive engineering. Several sequences bristle with superior energy and artistry, especially a brisk episode in which the Brits, working together, sneakily cobble together a radio so they can listen in on how the war’s going. Also strong: a flowering glimpse of salvation in the sky, spotted from Lomax’s bamboo cage.
The labor sequences are harrowing already, but their absorbing power gets disrupted by the inevitable extended torture scenes. By their nature we know they can’t have many surprises. Torture in movies is not about how individual moments of horror affect a character but about how many individual moments of horror the filmmakers feel we need to sit through. Teplitzky provides plenty, full of more screaming than bloodshed, the editing now jagged and punishing, the episodes of abuse spread throughout the movie thanks to a circuitous structure. Finally, after many shots of the interrogators stuffing a hose spurting water into Lomax’s mouth, The Railway Man cuts away with an abrupt judder, the kind of transition that used to dare us to imagine whatever terrible thing happens next. Here, it’s merely a relief — what would happen next would be more of the same, and at last we’re not having our noses rubbed in it.
In the final third, the adult Lomax journeys back to that camp to confront the Japanese interpreter who aided the torturers in questioning him. These scenes, adapted from real lives, can’t help but move, even when the dialogue becomes mannered and declarative, and this pair of shattered, stoic men say out loud (or in epistolary voiceover) all the things the actors have already implied. In the final minutes, Firth at last has something to play other than closed-mouth depression. It’s heartening to have a tony war film about PTSD and forgiveness; it would be grander still to have one that dedicated itself more fully to examining the courage it would take to offer that forgiveness, rather than dash its energies upon the dreary cowardice of the crime itself.