The Railway Man: trains of life
by Alfonso Rivera
- This grand English-Australian co-production, in competition in San Sebastian, fits into a more commercial and academic type of cinema.
In Spain, the film’s distributer has renamed The Railway Man [+see also:
film profile] El largo viaje (“the long voyage”), a title which the director, Jonathan Teplitzky (who has stunned his audiences since his first film, Better Than Sex, in 1980) is very happy with as it touches on the essence of the plot. The original title is nevertheless much more suggestive as it refers not only to the protagonist’s obsession with trains but it also acts as a metaphor that recurs throughout the film, one that suggests that these tracks lead each of our lives to love, death, slavery, forgiveness or revenge.
The Railway Man, starring British actor Colin Firth and Australian actress Nicole Kidman, is an obvious Oscar candidate as it encompasses all that the Hollywood Academy strives to honour: an extraordinarily dramatic conflict (inspired by the diary of Eric Lomax), intense scenes, detailed sets and a happy ending that makes the most detached viewers shed a tear.
The central concept of the story is the trauma suffered by a British soldier (Firth) during his imprisonment in a Japanese work camp in the forest separating Thailand and Burma during the Second World War. The horrors of this experience continue to haunt him; however, his loving and understanding wife (Kidman) tries to help him. In her quest to see her husband overcome the trauma, she questions a friend who has been through the same ordeal (Stellan Skarsgård) and encourages her husband to go back to the places in his nightmares in order to face his torturer, becoming a tour guide for the very camp where he committed brutalities that remain unpunished.
Through extensive and continuous flashbacks, Teplitzky revisits the story of “the railroad of death”, willing showing certain (unnecessarily long) torture scenes accompanied by choral music, clearly chosen to reduce even the most thick-skinned viewers to tears. Excessive suffering, bitterness and desire for revenge feature strongly in this academic and commercial film, however, throughout its two hour duration, the film lacks the liveliness, complexity and interest of some of its possible film references: the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai by David Lean and the twisted Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence by Nagisa Oshima (to whom this year the Basque festival is dedicating an interesting and deserved retrospective).
(Translated from Spanish)