|Wide shot 1: Colin Firth as Eric Lomax in The Railway Man|
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
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|
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.
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.