The Railway man is a film about the loss and then regaining of humanity. The plot, taken from Erik Lomax’s autobiographical novel, is that of Lomax’s capture amongst the British forces in Singapore by the Japanese Imperial Army. While there Lomax (played by Jeremy Irvine as a youth and Colin Firth as the elder) attempts to build a radio for information about the British forces and is tortured horrifically by the Kempetai for doing so. His experiences are unveiled through a series of flashbacks, at first the memory mixes with the present as the Japanese interpreter, Takashi Nagase, is seen walking through a restaurant in post-war Britain.
Jeremy Irvine performed these torture scenes himself and the agony echoes throughout the cinema hall. A startlingly powerful performance, the younger Lomax’s suffering is contrasted with the moody pensiveness of Firth as we begin to understand the elder Lomax’s mental pain. But this is not just a story about the horrors of the victim; it also delves into the psychological agony of the oppressor. The younger Nagese (played by Tanroh Ishida) is a ruthless member of the Japanese torture squad. An individual to which the young Lomax pleads to as he is the only English speaker. The elder Nagese (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) is tracked down by Lomax in the 1980s and the allure of revenge is tempting. His eventual forgiving of Nagese could perhaps disclose a mismatch between the plot and film genre.
To begin to understand Lomax’s thought process, a gruelling mulling over of his suffering, the limited spheres of filmography can be insufficient. Nagese’s contrition, understandably so as the film is told from Lomax’s point of view, is also harder to grasp due to the omission of his battling with guilt. This can make the film’s denouement surprising; the enduring friendship of Lomax and Nagese can seem hasty, although the limitations of film make this likely.
The film is not only a representation of the atrocities of World War II; it is also about the forgiveness given to those guilty. Lomax’s marriage to Patti (Nicole Kidman) is, according to his fellow prisoner Finlay (played by Stellan Skarsgard who oddly makes no attempt at an English accent), the saving factor in his inner pain. Equally the friendship evolving from the agony of the torture chamber is a softening of the past. The wounds are coaxed through the passage of time. The film expresses this healing by ironically intermingling time periods. This interchanging means that friendship and love remain as much a part of the film as the horrors of the prisoner camp and we are reminded of this throughout.