Saturday, September 14, 2013

TIFF13 Review: The Railway Man

Wide shot 1: Colin Firth as Eric Lomax in The Railway Man
At the beginning of time the clock struck one
Then dropped the dew and the clock struck two
From the dew grew a tree and the clock struck three
The tree made a door and the clock struck four
Man came alive and the clock struck five
Count not, waste not the hours on the clock
Behold I stand at the door and knock.

This unusual 'biblical nursery rhyme' is heard over the opening shots of Jonathan Teplitzky's The Railway Man. Written by British army signals engineer Eric Lomax, it becomes something of a touchstone in the film adaptation of Lomax's autobiography, as several times and in varying conditions in the film we hear him recite it. The film tells the story of Lomax's ordeal at the hands of Japanese torturers after the fall of Singapore during the second world war and is made with careful craftsmanship, never indulging in the violence but not stinting on it either, instead framing this extraordinary story with the redemptive grace that marks its final resting place. Sent to work on building the notorious 'death railway' (which includes the also famous bridge over Kwai), Lomax initially seems to have it a bit easier than some of the other Allied prisoners forced to endure heavy labour. However, after a hand-drawn map he made is discovered by his captors, his life takes a nightmarish turn and he is horrifically tortured. The translator of his interrogations becomes the subject of his deepest haunted post-traumatic memory.

Wide shot 2: Teplitzky keeps the camera wider
than many would, a distancing that offers respect
without sacrificing immediacy
It is very hard to talk about what makes this film so powerful without giving away its ending. Wondering about how to handle this, I checked out the just-released international trailer. Trailers can make a film look so completely different from what it is, or take elements that are indeed true and distort how they work. The trailer for The Railway Man is not inaccurate, but it is a bit misleading in its tone. The film is not just about revisiting and confronting the past, as the trailer suggests, but about living through that past. It's not a romantic love story, but a story of gruelling commitment by a couple who love each other so deeply that they can strive to survive horrific challenges. It is about living in memory and through it, both together. A friend I watched the film with who is a family therapist explained that traumatic experience is not 'remembered' in the sense of traditional memory. The traumatized person actually lives the experience over and over. They are in it; they do not have any objective detachment from it. The film makes that utterly vivid.

Colin Firth keeps surpassing himself. These years we are seeing the great hours of his career. But nothing quite prepares you for his haunted eyes and the combination of strength and gentleness. Nicole Kidman presents a clean clear solidity laced with compassion as the uncompromising Patti. Jeremy Irvine and Hiroyuki Sanada bring depth to their roles as the younger Lomax and the older interpreter. 

The direction is so incredibly fine, keeping the frame wide in many moments when others would go in close, somehow implicitly understanding that the whole picture is more meaningful than the sum of its gruesome parts. There is a kind of railway track tunnel use of the long shot (visible even in the trailer) allowing us to feel as if we are standing at both ends of time, as Lomax did, connecting the two places he lived in with one view. Wide shot after wide shot becomes over-wide, sometimes making Lomax a small, blackish ant-like figure walking a windswept beach, seemingly overcome by the enormity of his pain. At other times, we hang with him, upside down, tormented, broken, close enough for clarity but not too close. Teplitzky's deep respect for the subject keeps him from crossing the line of pretending to truly know it. 

The film's intense non-linear structure, moving backward and forward in time, allows us moments of rest that are rare but so essential in films on this kind of subject, so that the audience can catch up to what it now knows instead of just enduring barrage after barrage of challenging images. Use of dissolves and multi-layered shots of curtains and glass and reflections, moving in and out of focus, populate the first third of the film, bringing us inside the deep paralysis that Lomax occupied after the war, and before his life offered him a chance to physically return to the place of the events that so damaged him.

Eric Lomax and Takashi Nagase in the 1990s
Ultimately, however, this is a film about forgiveness. There is only a hint of this in the trailer, which otherwise wants to focus on revenge. (Let's stop and think about why revenge sells a movie better than forgiveness...!) This turn of events is not foreseen, but neither does it surprise us. Lying on his side in excruciating agony, the words of the biblical-nursery rhyme he invents offer clues to the deeper equilibrium that helps Lomax endure. The film does not take on the deep faith that underscores his book and which he uses to provide a thread of interpretation for his own self-reckoning. While there are enough subtle signals dotting the landscape of its story breadth to offer hints, I am a bit sad about this, because it is from this deep well that Lomax is ultimately able to draw up the love, compassion and kindness that will water his soul and offer him release. 

I believe The Railway Man will have an uneasy critical reception. It defies the conventions of contemporary cinema by not giving us an intense sensationalism. It forces us to watch in a much more sober and more deeply unsettling way, reminding me a bit of Kieslowski's A Short Film about Killing. There is violence portrayed in the film but it is not intensely graphic in the way that so often feels pornographic now in movies. The restraint of this film will be misunderstood as detachment but the film doesn't entertain or enthrall, it moves us. It asks us to witness, to wait, to walk slowly. To take it one horrible re-lived memory at a time, alongside many other moments of quiet inextinguishable sadness and silence, the black hole of being lost. It invites us into brief seconds of murder and the longer quieter minutes of sitting on the dusty memory-soaked ground. It is not for the faint of spiritual heart.

Even romantic moments are on the medium close-up
side of close, offering a loving sense of restraint
essential for this tough story. 
Lomax's life-long obsession with railways is what inspired him to draw the map that got him into trouble. It provided the context for his love-at-first-sight first encounter with his wife. It is the subject of his forced labour. And it is the rhythmic intuition of his heart, beating out rhymes and verses to pass the hours of unchartable darkness.

At the beginning of time, the clock struck one....

Some seventy years after those events and only a year after his death, we can be grateful. The fourteen years it took to develop the screenplay, with the help of both Eric and Patti Lomax, means that we get to bathe in a work that is itself bathed in love. And dwell in its wise heart.


Daniel, Julie, and kids said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D Brandsma said...

Thanks for this thoughtful review. A film I also enjoyed for the depth of theme and art. My humble two thumbs up.

You noted: "Use of dissolves and multi-layered shots of curtains and glass and reflections, moving in and out of focus, populate the first third of the film..." I also noticed this effect and I noticed that at first this was only used on Lomax. But as Patti tries to wedge herself into his past, she also joins in on 'the fog'. Interesting. A journey partner into the pain of the past will also feel a taste of the pain, the horror, the blur.

On another note, what do you think of the multiple 'glasses being put down on table' shots? It appeared to me like that act was a precursor to some profound or courageous action to follow. Thoughts?

Thanks again for posting this review. :)

Dan (at St. George the Martyr)

Sherry Coman said...

thanks for your comment and for these thoughtful observations! I do not remember the 'fog' dissolves etc moving to contain Patti, though I'm sure they do. And if so, they do indeed express that shared pain as you say.

Yes, I did notice the glasses being put down on table shots (and I am assuming you mean eyeglasses). On the one hand, I think they offer a convenient editing device for moving us between the present and past versions of Lomax. But on the other hand, I think they also represent the surrender of body/soul/heart/mind to the power at hand. The first time comes when he steps forward at the beating, for example. So yes, a precursor of courage. I also think they might also be read as letting go of the ability to see clearly, to have knowledge and understanding. Those are just some initial thoughts. You will have me thinking more on this now!

Dan, read the book. It's in the library system. It has beautiful prose in it. Lomax was Baptist by formation and makes some remarkable Scriptural analogies to his own experience. Thanks again!

MunthTime said...

Great review. I read the book before seeing the film and I had uneasy reservations based on what I saw in the trailer but now having seen it in its entirety I understand what all that was, although I don’t think it will be that obvious to viewers who haven’t read the book. I felt that there wasn’t quite enough made of their subsequent friendship but in hindsight it would probably been a bit overkill to develop that part of the story – given that the main narrative was Lomax’s experience in dealing with that pain. Nevertheless, it’s not a film I would watch over and over but it is incredible. I would advocate strongly for the book to be read – and in a strange way it actually wouldn’t matter if it was read before or after seeing the film as they both have elements that support and complement each other.

riyadh hammadi said...

an amazing film. and your review is great. thank you

Sherry Coman said...

Thank you Munthtime and Riyadh!

Marina Elsa Morgan said...
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