The Railway Man Ponders Reconciliation Rather Than Revenge
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2014 18 Apr
DVD Release Date: August 12, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: April 18, 2014 (wide)
Rating: R for disturbing prisoner of war violence
Run Time: 116 min.
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast: Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada, Sam Reid
2014 has seen a revival of interest in films aimed at Christian audiences. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was marketed to Christians, many of whom debated the film’s extra-Biblical take on the familiar story. Others championed the artistry behind the film, and audiences turned Noah into an international hit, if not the huge success in North America it looked like it might be after its big opening weekend.
With much less promotion, and without a big-name star like Noah’s Russell Crowe to generate interest, another film aimed at Christians, God’s Not Dead, has quietly become one of the most profitable Christian films of all time, now at $42 million and counting against a production cost of $2 million.
But there's another movie expanding its run this week that hasn’t been aggressively promoted to Christian filmgoers, yet it’s an inspiring, powerful film that revolves around the tension between justice and mercy, and our all too human tendency to desire the former rather than the latter. Railway Man is a genuine surprise—a film that heads toward a revenge drama before pivoting into a much more profound story.
Starring Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Railway Man bears some similarity to Laura Hillenbrand’s long-running best-selling novel Unbroken, the film version of which is scheduled to be released later this year. As in Hillenbrand’s novel, Railway Man, which is itself based on the memoir of a soldier (British, in this case), is about a man captured by the Japanese during World War II, subject to brutal treatment, and years later given the chance to confront his tormentor.
We’re introduced to Eric Lomax in apparently happier times. On a train, he meets and fall in love with Patti (Nicole Kidman, Nine), a nurse who likes what she sees in her fellow passenger. He’s a train nut, reciting arcane details of trains and their scheduled routes. Lomax’s obsessiveness seems like a tic Patti can live with—a quirk that might even be adorable.
But there’s a troubled soul under Eric’s surface politeness and fixation with trivial details. As Patti soon comes to realize, Eric is plagued by flashbacks to, and nightmares of, his time as a prisoner of war during World War II. Captured in Asia, Eric (the younger version of whom is played by Jeremy Irvine) keeps close tabs with his fellow soldiers, including Finlay (played by Stellan Skarsgard later in life, and by Sam Reid during the wartime sequences), as they are forced by the Japanese to build the Burma Railway.
When Eric learns via a radio broadcast that the tide of war has turned in the Allies’ favor, he spreads the word and is soon brutally punished for doing so by a vicious Japanese officer, Nagase (Tanroh Ishida). The punishment scenes are difficult to watch and earn the film its R rating.
Up to that point, The Railway Man pales in comparison to other prisoner-of-war films, and fights a structure that takes away one of its stars (Kidman) for long stretches of screen time. When she does appear, Kidman is underused, stuck trying to pry from Finlay clues about Eric’s background that her husband is too traumatized to open up about. While well performed, there’s nothing that sets The Railway Man apart. Although the production values are high and the pace stately, The Railway Man looks like it’s on course to end as a standard revenge drama, with Eric finally taking vengeance on his tormentor. But when the older Eric tracks down Nagase and plans to retaliate, The Railway Man becomes something quite special. It has a different story tell, one about the freedom that comes from forgiveness, and the healing that comes with reconciliation.
Although Eric's religious beliefs are not stated, his actions follow Scriptural directives. Paul wrote, "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31-32).
While Firth is predictably good as Eric, it’s Hiroyuki Sanada as the older Nagase who surprises the most in The Railway Man, defusing the situation with Eric by noting how their meeting later in life represents an opportunity for peace. Rather than settle old scores with violence, Eric and Nagase choose a better path, one that makes The Railway Man well worth seeing. Consider it as another choice among movies that should be of interest to Christians, even if it’s not marketed explicitly to Christian audiences.
- Language/Profanity: “Poor bastards”
- Drinking/Smoking:Discussion of vodka
- Sex/Nudity:Kissing; man and woman lay on bed and begin to undress; married couple lays in bed, holding hands, covered by sheets
- Violence/Crime: A man wields a box cutter and attacks a man entering his home; severe beatings and torture of POWs; a suicide; human skeletons
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Eric and Patti marry; a soldier quotes from Psalms; Eric is told he’ll be killed soon; Bible reading at a funeral; Buddhist rituals; a man says he finds peace through his work at a Buddhist site; a man says he believes another man’s deceased mother could hear him; apology offered and forgiveness extended