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Reflection on the bitter legacy of the Burma railway

10 January 2014

Stephen Brown sees a thoughtful film starring Colin Firth


AFTER the fall of Singapore in 1942, the Japanese brutally forced many of their captives to begin construction of a railway line from Thailand to Rangoon, Burma. Thousands died under horrendous conditions. Others were tortured, and bore deep emotional scars that long outlasted the physical abuse they had suffered. Eric Lomax's account of the pain he and fellow soldiers experienced was eventually published more than 40 years later - an indication, perhaps, of how far-extending was the road to healing and forgiveness.

The film version of The Railway Man (Cert. 15), released today, begins by quoting from Revelation. Those familiar with the Roman Catholic writer Frank Cottrell Boyce's other screenplays, such as Millionsand God on Trial, will not be surprised to find astute theological reflection in his latest piece. We see in Lomax, as played by Colin Firth, the gradual rehabilitation of someone long lost to himself.

The spark is a Brief Encounter moment on a train journey in 1983 between Lomax and Patti (Nicole Kidman), which leads to marriage. Neither the film (nor the book) pays attention to what his deeply religious first wife, or their daughters, endured, living with a soul in torment. This state of affairs continues with Patti in their Berwick home. It is her determination, however, to deal with Lomax's unspoken fears and fantasies which is at the heart of the picture.

Central to his post-traumatic stress is, as we see in flashbacks, the treatment of young Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) by one of his torturers. Nagase - Tanroh Ishida plays the juvenile version - is his vicious interrogator. In a crucial scene, which takes place on the causeway leading to Holy Island, Patti encourages Lomax to acknowledge his demons. Subsequently, he locates the mature Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), now working as a guide in a Death Railway museum. Nagase has attempted to atone for his sins; Lomax still languishes in the depths of hell.

Interestingly, Lomax, a member of a Baptist church, begins his book with "I am alive and was dead. . . Write therefore the things which thou hast seen" (Revelation 1.18-19), thus heralding a testimony to what he witnessed. The film has a somewhat different focus, kicking off instead with "Behold, I stand at the door and knock (Revelation 3.20): Christ's waiting for us to invite him into our lives. It is an enormous clue to the story that follows, one in which we wonder whether Lomax can ever open the door of his heart; and whether forgiveness can be snatched from the jaws of revenge.

The film isn't Die Hard, but offers something much more difficult to attain. That it succeeds owes much to Cottrell Boyce and the director, Jonathan Teplitzky, who subtly but insistently present a redemptive alternative to those cinematic clichés of retributive justice.

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