Revenge or reconciliation?

The Railway Man offers a look inside the mind of a survivor of World War II's Death Railway and the extraordinary lengths he will go to find peace

The wounds of war fester with time. Eric Lomax was serving in the British army in Singapore during World War II when the Japanese invaded and captured him. Along with other Allied soldiers, he was sent by train to the POW camp in Kanchanaburi, where he endured the ordeal of forced labour in the construction of the Death Railway, that memorial of death and barbarism whose name still rings with a funereal aura today.

When the war ended, Lomax returned to Scotland. But the recalcitrant ghost gnawed at him. As shown in The Railway Man, which has been adapted from Lomax’s acclaimed memoir and starring Colin Firth, the ex-soldier spends his time in a gloomy war veteran club full of wounded souls. When a friend shows him a Thai newspaper clipping that prints the story of a Japanese soldier who once abused him and who’s still living in Kanchanaburi, Lomax realises that the only way to subdue his demon is to return to the scene of the crime and confront the evil, or the only manifestation of evil that wronged him.

The Railway Man is about the spectre of revenge and the possibility of reconciliation, one sweet and the other bitter, and both equally more life-hardening than Lomax might have first imagined. The film has an old-school gravity and stiff reverence, which is probably the only way to tell the story wrought with personal anguish and historical implication. Also starring Nicole Kidman as Lomax’s wife, the movie is anchored by Firth’s performance; Lomax’s transformation from a geeky trainspotter in Scotland to a knot of mad fury once he faces his Japanese torturer could have been the stuff of overplayed melodrama. Firth, slowly releasing Lomax’s years of bottled-up anger, makes it believably human.

Beginning at a seaside town in Scotland before moving to Kanchanaburi (see box), the film takes some time to lull us in its rhythm. In turning Lomax’s book into a visual story, the script requires the act of externalising what’s supposedly in the ex-soldier’s head, and that’s always a complicated — if not sometimes awkward — process of cinematic adaptation. The staging of Lomax’s confrontation with Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) at the former prisoner compound, which has been turned into a war museum, feels somewhat, well, stagey, and yet it carries the intensity of clashing emotions: hatred, confusion, contrition, the anxious calm of two men who’ve been sentenced to death by each other.

The story of war victims who return to face their torturers has been told before, notably and most disturbingly in Rithy Pahn’s S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. In that film, which is a documentary fused with stagey re-enactment of past violence, the survivors of Pol Pot’s death camp are brought to meet with their tormentors, and the tidal waves of conflicting emotions from both parties give the film its eerie vibe. It also gives us a lesson not just on the possibility of reconciliation or forgiveness, but in the tenacity of memory and history.

That’s the same feeling that The Railway Man is working for. While S21’s unusual strategy dredges up the pit of pain, this UK/Australian film is classical, respectful, and almost sweet. The Khmer Rouge film gives you hell then sends you out as if you were still walking on the edge of an abyss. The Railway Man, meanwhile, leaves you with tears and hope. Hell is over, only when it isn’t.

About the author

Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist