'The Railway Man' brings home the horrors of war

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In the War is Hell Department, it doesn't get more hellish than the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway, forcibly constructed by Allied slave laborers after the fall of Singapore in 1942. Tens of thousands of POWs were worked and starved to death in the process by merciless Japanese overseers who considered them animals -- not soldiers -- for shamefully surrendering rather than honorably killing themselves.

'The Railway Man'

Starring: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard.

Rating: R for disturbing scenes of torture and prisoner of war violence.

One of the survivors was Eric Lomax, the British officer whose autobiography is the basis for "The Railway Man," a harrowing true tale of war and postwar traumatic stress, years before PTSD was clinically identified -- let alone treated.

The film opens 35 years after the war, in 1980. We meet Lomax (Colin Firth) as he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), appropriately enough, on a train. They'll soon be falling in love. He's an odd duck -- taciturn, abrasive, distracted, seemingly haunted. What happened to so traumatize and shut him off from the world? He won't speak of it.

"I don't believe in this code of silence," Patti tells his old comrade-in-arms and fellow survivor Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard). She resolves to find out, to help exorcise his demons and put him back together again.

Flashbacks to his captivity, cross-edited with his mental struggles in the 1980s, gradually reveal the events and atrocious treatment endured while carving a 258-mile iron road through extremely difficult, hilly, jungle terrain between Bangkok and Rangoon. (The most famous portion of the railway would be Bridge 277 -- better known as "The Bridge on the River Kwai" in David Lean's epic 1957 movie rendering.)

Soldier Lomax's special expertise is radio-telegraph equipment, and, with stolen parts, he painstakingly pieces together a secret receiver to get -- and possibly transmit -- information. When it is discovered, the resulting punishment is both horrendous and ongoing. Viewer advisory: The barbaric practice of waterboarding -- so recently and reprehensibly back in vogue -- is the Japanese torture method of choice and is very hard to watch. No punches are pulled.

That said, this tense and intense film ends up being a powerfully moving celebration of humanity and spiritual strength, rendered through a set of uniformly fine performances. Mr. Firth's battered, broken Lomax is quietly lifted by his own resolve and by Ms. Kidman's ever-so-plain, middle-aged Patti -- seeing her man through his adversity. Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada (playing the young and old torture-translator Takashi, respectively) are excellent villains, while bespectacled Jeremy Irvine (as the young Lomax) is nothing short of superb. Separately and collectively, they make you weep.

Director Jonathan Teplitzky ("Burning Man") is stylistically conservative to the point of old-fashioned in his storytelling. The Australian production was filmed in Queensland, Scotland and Thailand with some of the major sequences actually shot on extant sections of the Burma railway itself.

I liked the editing a lot: At one point, the slam-shut closing of a 1942 POW train door cuts to the gentle opening of a 1980 car boot. Is that beautiful sky full of descending parachutists for real or a mirage?

I didn't so much like the script's final compression of dramatic events. Screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson wrap things up a bit too hastily and glibly (and conveniently omit the fact that Lomax had a wife and kids before Patti).

But perhaps we can forgive tidy emotional resolutions in the (true) case of a man whose body and soul were equally tormented and who suddenly discovers, decades later, that his tormentor is still alive. Should he track him down, confront and kill him? What's the best justice? What's the best, or most necessary, therapeutic revenge?

No helpful "Truth & Reconciliation" commissions (a crucial post-Vietnam development) existed for World War II veterans. Lomax, who died in 2012, remained eternally internally at war and had to figure out for himself how to lay the ghosts of the past to rest. So did the Japanese who tortured and killed 12,400 Allied POW slaves like him (and 90,000 Asian civilians) to build their railroad.

There's a difference between tragedy and crime, he says -- and different kinds of punishment. Turns out, Shakespeare was wrong: the quality of mercy is very strained indeed.

Opens today at the Manor in Squirrel Hill.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris:

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