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Colin Firth should do this on stage

Robert Butler takes issue with “The Railway Man”

Robert Butler | November 27th 2013

If any theatre producers are reading this, they may want to make a date to see "The Railway Man", the new movie starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It would make a better stage play than a movie. "The Railway Man" may seem like an epic tale—the fall of Singapore in 1942, the brutal construction of the Burma-Siam railway—but, essentially, it's a chamber piece.

There are four main characters: Eric Lomax, his new wife Patti, a fellow officer, and the man who tortured him. More than that, the narrative has a structure of classical simplicity: two encounters between two men trying to extract the truth from one another. The second time round, the roles are reversed, and the purpose of the questioning has changed entirely. But most of all, "The Railway Man" would work better in the theatre because the almost unspeakable violence that lies at the heart of it—the details of which are held back for as long as possible—could take place off-stage. 

"The Railway Man" is based on the true story of a railway enthusiast and Royal Signals officer who was imprisoned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and savagely tortured after it was discovered that he had built a makeshift radio. These experiences stay with Lomax long after he has returned to Britain and his fierce reticence about what happened—expertly rendered by Firth—threatens to wreck his new marriage. There are moments when the movie conveys the psychological torment by catching us unawares: in one scene, the Japanese interrogator from the 1940s enters Lomax's bedroom in the 1980s and leads him back to the camp and solitary confinement. In another, Nicole Kidman comes across a book of drawings on her husband's desk and, as she flicks through the pages, we glimpse a rapid, almost bewildering, succession of horrific sketches by Ronald Searle and others. 

Both these moments create some dramatic detachment, but as we approach the climax of the movie, we run into its central contradiction. "The Railway Man" depicts in relentless detail the very thing that Lomax cannot bring himself to talk about. When it does so, we recoil from the scenes in two ways: the violence itself is repellent, but its graphic presentation inevitably diminishes the horror it is trying to describe. We are watching something from the outside. We are looking on. When dealing with anguish of this depth, the ancient Greeks knew something that modern filmmakers often forget: our imaginations are more deeply engaged by the actions we don't quite see. 

The Railway Man opens in Britain on Jan 1st

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