The Railway Man is a decent film and rather better than I thought it might be. For some reason I got the impression from the trailer and the poster that there would be CGI war scenes and the like. If anything, the film suffers from the opposite – an attempt to use the ‘authenticity’ of the typical British realist drama including railway scenes that the real Eric Lomax would probably have winced at (wrong locos, rolling stock, stations etc.). But I’m not going to go on about that. The two reactions to the film have been either warm appreciation and enjoyment or dismissal as conventional/’soft’ etc. I think the former is more reasonable.
Eric Lomax was a young Royal Signals officer captured by Japanese forces at Singapore in 1942. The terrible irony was that this young railway enthusiast was sent to become part of the slave labour force building the ‘Death Railway’ from Siam into Burma to provide the Imperial Japanese Army with a supply route for their proposed invasion of India. Lomax was taken to be an engineer and was therefore slightly better off than the soldiers who became labourers. However, he crossed the Japanese camp leaders and was brutally tortured. Though he survived the ordeal, he developed post-traumatic stress, a condition not fully recognised in post-war Britain and it was not until 35 years after his release and marriage to Patti, a woman he met on a train, that he is able to return to the railway in contemporary Thailand – there to meet his torturer.
The Railway Man is an Australian-UK co-production. There is useful background material on the production on the film’s official website, but it’s still not clear to me why it became an Australian film after the initial script work by Frank Cottrell Boyce in the UK, over several years, based on Eric Lomax’s own book. (Australian troops were captured at Singapore and the liberators of the camps in 1945 were Australians, as shown in the film.) The film also has a huge budget by British standards ($26million is the estimate on IMDB – I’m not sure if that is US or Australian dollars, but it’s still large). I’m guessing that Nicole Kidman as Patti was part of the deal to promote the film. I’m afraid that she felt miscast for me as I didn’t believe in her as the character as constructed by the narrative. She nevertheless performs the role with skill and she looks lovely even in the dowdiest of clothes (by all accounts the real Patti claimed never to have been as dowdy.) The budget went on location work in Scotland, then Thailand and then finally in Australia for studio sets and construction of the camp.
I’ve see a number of reviews from what I assume to be younger writers who simply don’t ‘get’ the film. They don’t understand why Patti’s role is important and they don’t really understand the experience of the POWs in Burma. (I should point out that the film is not totally ‘truthful’ to the facts of Eric’s life – but Patti is clearly important in triggering events.) It occurred to me that there have been films about the trauma of being captured by the Japanese in Malaya at regular intervals in the UK since soon after the war ended. One that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947), an adaptation of a Nigel Balchin novel that features a psychiatrist in a difficult marriage who has been a POW himself and then finds himself asked to treat another POW who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his experiences in Malaya/Burma. Later films included Hammer’s Camp on Blood Island (UK 1958) and the relationship drama Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence directed by Oshima Nagisa (UK/Japan 1983). Oshima reminds me that I did think about The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) at the end of The Railway Man. In Kon Ichikawa’s film we get a very different sense of the Japanese soldiers who have to come to terms with the end of the war but on reflection some of that is in the meeting between Eric Lomax and the figure of his nightmares played by Sanada Hiroyuki. I found these scenes very moving. I think you could argue that The Railway Man is a true ‘anti-war film’. We realise that along with the terrible loss of so many lives, Eric has had his life ruined and his opportunities for fulfilment closed off because of the (understandable) hatred he felt towards Japan and the Japanese. In a parallel universe, Eric Lomax would have travelled to Japan and marvelled at the diversity of Japanese rail networks.
My other gripe is with the reviewers who dismiss the ending of this film. One states that though the ending conforms to what actually happens, it doesn’t work as cinema – as if a film must end in a certain way. These reviewers appear to have been force-fed Hollywood screenwriting handbooks and that is not a good practice. Films can end in lots of different ways, all of which can be effective in different circumstances. The story of The Railway Man is relatively well-known because of the book and documentary treatments. Many audiences want to ‘experience’ the story on the big screen – they don’t want it changed to conform to Hollywood conventions.
On a technical level, The Railway Man feels accomplished and restrained. Frank Cottrell Boyce is of course an experienced and celebrated scriptwriter but Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky gets more exposure in the international film market than he has had before. Perhaps the issue about the film is that it feels old-fashioned, like a film that might have been made in the 1970s and 1980s. That hasn’t stopped it being a hit with older audiences. My hope is that its box office success in the UK will attract younger audiences who might be introduced to this history and who might understand a little more about post-traumatic stress. Perhaps it will contribute to the general discussion about the impact of war on the lives of ordinary people that the whole emphasis during 2014 on the centenary of the First World War should bring. Come to think about it, the thousands of young soldiers abandoned by the poorly prepared authorities in colonial Singapore have something in common with the troops sent out to be slaughtered in 1914.
I missed this film when it came out but I remember that the trailer made it look fun. I did enjoy it when I watched it on DVD recently and it struck me that it serves to bring together several representations of ‘Englishness’, questions about modernity and the possibilities for contemporary British films.
The instigator of the project was producer Barnaby Thompson. He’s an intriguing figure who has produced (and directed) a series of popular British films since the late 1990s without making much of an impact on either film academics or general commentators on the British film industry, yet usually making money. His record of successes is remarkable, encompassing several different but familiar British genres, one of which is the broad comedy of the St. Trinians revivals and Kevin and Perry Go Large and another the more sophisticated comedy/satire of Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian Gray). He was also responsible for Spice World. Thompson’s ‘go to’ actor/star appears to be Colin Firth and it’s interesting to note Firth’s long list of comic supporting parts in these films at a time when he looks odds-on favourite for Best Actor in this year’s Oscars.
For this project, Thompson switched from Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward. His crucial decision was to approach the Australian director Stephan Elliott (best known for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994)). Elliott worked with another Australian filmmaker, Sheridan Jobbins, and between them they adapted the original Coward script. Coward wrote the play in 1924 and it was performed on Broadway in 1925 and in the West End in 1926. The first film version (a ‘silent’ Noel Coward!) was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928.
Coward’s light comedy/romance was intended as an attack on the hypocrisy of the Edwardian values held by upper middle-class women at a time of (limited) sexual liberation for younger women. Elliott claims to have moved away from Coward but the film retains much of the plot of the original play. The Whittakers are from the landed gentry with a large rambling country house falling into decline. Mr Whittaker (Colin Firth) has more or less retired from running the estate, disillusioned by his wartime experiences. The job falls to Mrs Whittaker (Kristin Scott Thomas), the repressed mother of two marriageable daughters, Marion (the usually sparky Katherine Parkinson playing against type) and her younger sister, Hilda (Kimberley Nixon) – both of whom are to some extent dysfunctional. The ‘inciting incident’ is the return home of John Whittaker (Ben Barnes) with his new bride, an American rally car driver, Larita (Jessica Biel). Mother is not amused.
The main change from the original is to make Larita an American. In some ways this seems to slightly shift the genre repertoire towards the long-running series of stories in which American women come to Europe looking for aristocratic husbands. Larita isn’t one of these however and it is her independence, sporting achievements and general worldliness that makes her a disruptive force.
Elliott has said (in the DVD extras) that a recognisable music score was very important in getting the tone and feel of the film right. Newspaper references to the death of Houdini (1926) and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1929) immediately confuse the period setting and the songs (all performed by the ‘Easy Virtue Orchestra’ and arranged by Marius De Vries) are mainly from the early 1930s. The opening song, ‘Mad About the Boy’ by Noel Coward dates from 1932. There are also arrangements of much more recent songs such as ‘Car Wash’ and ‘Sex Bomb’. Clearly, Elliott is not bothered by notions of historical ‘authenticity’ as such. Any expectations that this will be a straight BBC costume picture approach are dashed immediately (BBC Films did invest in the project however).
I enjoyed the film for precisely the same reason that most broadsheet newspaper reviewers employed to put it down, i.e. the anachronistic use of music, aspects of dialogue and some performance styles. Elliott is clearly not making either a ‘straight’ adaptation or a ‘realist’ romantic drama. He’s attempting to have some fun with the format whilst still keeping Coward’s satirical edge. This involves some interesting camerawork from Martin Kenzie – a veteran usually employed as an assistant or on Second Unit work and here given his head.
There is also an interesting mix of actors in the cast. Three pairs of actors fill the main parts. Firth and Scott Thomas provide the class (and pull in the older audiences) whereas Jessica Biel and Ben Barnes (Narnia films) represent the ‘young’ (both in their late 20s) stars for younger audiences. Kimberley Nixon is another younger British actor who could be seen as performing in the same way. IMDB carries several vitriolic attacks Jessica Biel. I realised that the only time I’ve seen her before was when she was a young teenager in Ulee’s Gold (1997) and I thought she was very well cast here. Barnes was suitably dull but she had the vitality and physicality required. The third pair was the UK TV sitcom actors Kris Marshall as the butler and Katherine Parkinson as the older daughter Marion. I thought that this casting helped Elliott create tensions and disturbances in the household with difference performance styles and different ways for the audience to respond. Marshall seemed to me to steal the film in terms of his comedy performance with a beautiful series of smirks, raised eyebrows etc.
But most obvious (and perhaps most annoying for the critics) was the deliberate oppositional playing of Scott Thomas and Firth. She creates an over-emphasised caricature of nostril flaring whereas Firth appears to be in a 1970s movie with his sunglasses, stubbly beard and general sense of being laid-back. He must have had a ball. He is reported to have been worried by the requirement to dance the tango with Biel but for many in the audience this will have been the highlight of the film.
Stephan Elliott nearly killed himself in a skiing accident in 2004 and it’s good to see him back on form. Easy Virtue did reasonable business around the world (strangely being most popular in Italy and France – perhaps making fun of the English upper middle classes is still appealing). Elliott is working on a new film and Kris Marshall is in the cast.