As the torture scenes in The Railway Man focus on waterboarding, you're reminded that Japanese waterboarders were executed by Allied victors, and may pause to ponder the current debate over American waterboarders.
"I'm a train enthusiast." Eric Lomax says this more than once in The Railway Man, and if it doesn't quite explain the film's utterly bland title, it does suggest a particular sense of self. Here, in this movie based on the true-life story of a young Scotsman brutally tortured by the Japanese Kempeitai during World War II, that sense appears alternately heroic and damaged. Resolutely focused on Eric's experience, both external and internal, the movie twists itself into a knot of clichés.
The first shots of The Railway Man hint at the problems to come. The young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) appears in a low angle shot with the London Bridge looming behind him, a valiant uniformed soldier returned home and visibly glad for it. Cut to the older version of this veteran (Colin Firth), lying on a floor, reciting a childhood rhyme, emotionally undone and alone, desperate. Between these two versions of Eric, the film inserts all manner of flashbacks, from older Eric's informal meetings with a fellow veterans' group to younger Eric's capture by Japanese soldiers, along with younger incarnations of those fellow veterans, as well as the older Eric's meeting and apparently whirlwindy romance with Patti (Nicole Kidman).
That the couple's meeting takes place on a train is a little cute, but again, suggests his capacity for focus. That it shows up on screen by way of his telling the story to his veteran friends, most specifically Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), provides a rudimentary frame. Clambering awkwardly and rather loudly into seat opposite hers, Eric slowly warms to Patti's efforts at conversation, responding most frequently with facts concerning trains and towns where trains stop.
As he confesses to Finlay and company, over the course of just a few stops on this ride, he falls in love with her and yes, reader, he marries her. This happy occasion leads pretty much directly to moments of emotional withdrawal, physical and mental torments, and essential meanness to Patti, which leads in turn to the dredging up of his very, very bad time in Changi prison.
This bad time is jumpstarted in his flashbacks when Eric discovers the purpose he and other prisoners will serve for their captors, namely, to be slave laborers building the notorious Burma Railway (the construction killed some 90,000 Asian civilians and 14,000 Allied POWs). The POWs' resistance leads to repercussions, including Eric's torture. Here the movie transforms from a sometimes clever, other times obvious elaboration of the blurring of time and place inside Eric's PTSD, or his difficulties with "masculinity" as a social construct, into a more ponderous sorting out of demons. He discovers that one of his torturers, a translator named Nagase, is now giving tours of the prison, Eric decides (after an alarming bit of prodding by Finlay) to face his horrific past, or, as the film phrases it, the "army of ghosts" that continues to torment him.
The film holds out the possibilities of Eric's desire for vengeance and his turning into a monster of the sort he sees in Nagase (played in flashbacks by Tanroh Ishida and in present time by Hiroyuki Sanada). But as Eric makes his way to Changi and looks into the eyes of that monster, the film becomes less complicated rather than more, an unfortunate turn. Sitting across each other at the same table where they sat some 40 years earlier, the two men contemplate what it means to survive war, to feel guilt for doing so, and to make sense of utter chaos.
"Why are you still alive"? Eric asks Nagase, setting into motion more too-explanatory flashbacks to show how Nagase's experience paralleled Eric's own, preserved by the enemy to serve the enemy's purposes (one for his railway knowledge and the other for his language skills). As the torture scenes focus on waterboarding, you're reminded that Japanese waterboarders were executed by Allied victors, and may pause to ponder the current debate over American waterboarders.
But The Railway Man doesn't ponder so much as it pounds toward its own end. As admirable as this end may be, and as difficult as it must have been for the real life Eric, and for Nagase to find it, the movie makes it too easy for you.