Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Railway Man

Alternate Title:  Lifetime Presents:  Bridge on the River Kwai

One sentence synopsis:  Decades after being tortured by the Japanese as a prisoner of war, a traumatized ex-soldier confronts the man who tortured him.

Things Havoc liked:  I was really looking forward to this film. You would too if you had seen the trailer I did. How am I supposed to resist a film with Colin Firth (The King's Speech, Conspiracy, A Single Man), Stellan Skarsgard (Thor, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Good Will Hunting), and Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai, Sunshine, The White Countess)? How am I supposed to resist a movie about the Second World War, and indeed about an element of it (the abuse of Allied POWs during the war) that deserves to be better known about? How am I supposed to resist the prospect of such a film landing at the tail end of Doldrums season, always one of the most fallow periods in the film calendars, when the big budget flicks are all stupid bombs and a glorious indie film can slide in under the radar. This is the time of year that gave me last year's Best Film Award-winner The Sapphires, for God's sake. What else can you really ask for?

The Railway Man, directed by newcomer (to me) Jonathan Teplitzky, is a film about a weighty subject. In 1942, following their capture of the fortress-city of Singapore, the Imperial Japanese Army forced tens of thousands of Allied POWs and hundreds of thousands of conscripted local peasants to build a railway from Thailand to Burma over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the history of engineering. Tens of thousands of slave laborers died in the attempt to carve a railway through the jungles and mountains of South-East Asia, a section of which was so horrific in terms of lives lost and atrocities committed by the Japanese Guards that it became known as "Hellfire Pass". The film is the story of Eric Lomax, a railway enthusiast and soldier who is made part of this terrible project, during the course of which, he is tortured by a Kempetai (Secret Police) officer named Takashi Nagase. Yet all this is really just backstory for the main event, which is the decades-older, traumatized Lomax discovering Nagase's location, and seeking him out, hell-bent on revenge. This represents an... interesting take on the real story which underlies this film, but when it's actors like Firth and Sanada portraying these roles, the effect is potent. The confrontation between these two men, one a tortured victim boiling over with long-suppressed rage, and the other a man who has tried for decades to reconcile his wartime crimes with himself, cores the film, and provides an engaging denouement to slowly work towards. Lesser actors would not have been able to make this scene work, but these are not lesser actors.

Indeed, if you've read any of my reviews, you'll know that I'm an actor's critic, in that if everything else fails, I can always simply appreciate the chance to see good actors doing their thing. Even actors I'm not particularly fond of, Nicole Kidman for instance, who here plays Lomax' wife, can produce performances to surprise me here and there, and working off Firth, even Kidman has her moments in this movie. An opening sequence, one that has nothing to do with anything in the plot, simply portrays Kidman and Firth first meeting, and has a wonderful awkwardly-real tone to it, as does the quintessentially British reaction Firth has to having met someone he has actually fallen for. All throughout the movie there are touches like this, moments or individual lines made possible by the craft of the actors involved in the film, that vindicate my faith in their abilities. And this is why, despite the fact that there are no sure things in film, I had every faith that, even with a middling plot or questionable direction, The Railway Man was destined to be a highlight of my experiences early this year.

Things Havoc disliked: "Had" being the operative word.

The Railway Man is a catastrophically bad film. A film so wrong-headed that nothing, not a wonderful premise or a gift-wrapped dramatic plot or the services of many fine actors to portray these things had the slightest prayer of salvaging it. A middling story and questionable direction can indeed be overcome, but there is no salvaging a film this clunky, this overwrought, this maddeningly blind to all sense of nuance or subtlety. How is such a thing possible? One need look no further than the screenwriters, Frank Boyce and Andy Patterson, both of whom are known for producing children's books and television. Picture, if you will, a version of Empire of the Sun produced by Nickelodeon, and you will begin to understand the problem here.

What do I mean? Every decision, every plot point, every bit of exposition in this movie is produced as though the intended audience were seven-year-olds. An early sequence in which Lomax is tasked by the script to explain just what the Burma Railway is to his fellow POWs (and by extension the audience), a sequence which could have easily been handled with a few words, or even a pre-screen title card, is instead treated almost like a ghost story told by campers around the fire, complete with ominous music, and slow, "important" line-reading ("The British thought building a railway through there would be.... BARBARISM!!!" *orchestra sting!*). Despite the subject matter, which includes torture, PTSD, guilt, and forgiveness, never once does the film shy away from having to jackhammer everything it's doing into us with all the subtlety of a brass band. Nicole Kidman's entire role in the film seems to be to explain to the audience that a man who spends his nights shrieking in agony and attacking solicitors with box cutters is "not coping well" and "must have experienced something bad". Worse yet, the movie seems to believe that we are incapable of handling astonishing revelations such as these without unobstructed concentration, and tackles subjects such as Kidman and Firth's relationship, his trauma, and his quest for closure one at a time, as though these things had nothing to do with one another. Firth shows no signs whatsoever of being a broken victim when first we meet him, until finally he and Kidman wed, at which point he spontaneously morphs into the shattered vet he supposedly was all along, much to both Kidman's surprise and our own. And when we've managed, at length, to establish that Firth is a wreck, every other element of his life, including Kidman's entire role, is summarily dropped, left in waiting for nearly an hour as Firth journeys to Thailand to find his tormentor, confident that having abandoned his wife without a word so as to travel for weeks and murder people in another country, everything will be perfectly fine when he gets home.

I cannot possibly overstate just how pervasive this tendency towards simplistic exposition is within the film, so deeply ingrained that many characters are either reduced to passive observers, unable to act for fear of introducing complexity into the narrative (Kidman) or forced to act in ways that nobody, not even the most traumatized victims of horrific abuse, ever act (Skarsgaard). Paradoxically, this obsession with simplistic storytelling makes many elements of the movie very hard to understand, as characters act in ways that make no sense unless someone truncated all concerns or motives but one narrow one out of their personalities. Skarsgaard, playing Firth's best friend and fellow POW Finlay (how a Sweede wound up in the British Army is left unanswered), acts in ways that I still do not quite understand, not even if I assume that he is as broken as Firth is. His solution to the plain fact that Firth's PTSD is not curing itself is to conspire with his wife to encourage Firth to find and murder his old oppressor. And when Firth speaks of setting the past aside, something he wishes to do despite not knowing how to do it, Skarsgaard's reaction is so baffling and completely out of left field that I reacted as though I'd just seen a jump scare in a horror film. Meanwhile, the sections set in the past, with Lomax and Nagase played by War Horse's Jeremy Irvine and newcomer Tanroh Ishida, are almost painful to watch for the same damned reasons. Ishida, at one point, is literally tasked with standing over Irvine and screaming "You have no honor!", a line that could never possibly have worked, and certainly not when delivered with all the bombast of King Lear screaming at the stormclouds. Irvine, meanwhile, at one point builds a clandestine radio so as to get news from home and "keep the lads' morale up", a process that consists of finding a shaking, broken British officer, who is instantly cured of his afflictions upon being told that the Russians have re-captured Stalingrad. Clearly, this is the most important information imaginable to a man being beaten and starved to death by an unrelated enemy some ten thousand miles from a city he has likely never heard of. Later, having been beaten and tortured for weeks for possessing this forbidden radio, the film actually goes so far as to have Lomax deliver a defiant speech to his tormentors about how they will be beaten in the end, and how they will never break his spirit, the filmmakers having apparently forgotten that they were trying to make a realistic movie about the scars left by war. Arnold Schwarzenegger can get away with backtalking the people who have physically abused him for weeks. Terrified teenagers destined to suffer decades of tormented abuse in dramatic movies about the horrors of war cannot.

Oh and speaking of the damned radio, it symbolizes the greatest crime that this oversimplification produces, namely the fact that it actually serves to genericize the actual events in question. The horror of the Burma railway was the randomness of the brutality. The Japanese guards, inflamed by terrible conditions and the general culture of violent discipline in the Imperial service, brutalized their prisoners for no reason, beating them to death, decapitating them, arbitrarily torturing dozens of them to death for no reason whatsoever. It was the same mentality that led to the atrocities of Nanking, of the Bataan Death March, of thousands of other incidents across the Pacific War. Yet in this film, Lomax is not tortured randomly, but because of the damnable radio he decides to build. To be sure, the abuse he suffers following the discovery of his secret radio is a war crime, but by framing the story around it, it turns what Lomax suffered from the horror of the Burma Railway into yet another fictitious "sadistic guards beat the prisoner" story, the sort of which could be found in any war on any side. Anyone can be abused by someone in power, but what actually happened on the Burma Railway was so, so far beyond the usual abuses that one can encounter in any prison, as to constitute one of the most shocking atrocities in the history of war. Not here. Here, the worst crime perpetrated, a crime so terrible that it caused the place it transpired to be called "The Railway of Death", the one that necessitated decades of soul-searching, and an act of forgiveness so sublime as to defy belief, was that a man who violated the rules of his prison camp suffered a disproportionate punishment. This is the equivalent of making a film in which a German officer beats a person up for insulting Hitler, and then calling it the Holocaust.

Final thoughts:   I have labored mightily to get this far without making a "trainwreck" joke, but The Railway Man is precisely that, a complete disaster of a film that not only fails to do justice to its own story, but seemingly misses the point of it along the way. Though elevated by a handful of scenes wherein the cast is able to bring their talents to bear, the movie is a leaden, simplistic, undignified mess, one which grows steadily worse as it lurches on from scene to seemingly-disconnected scene, blissfully conjuring up "cathartic" moments that it has done nothing to earn. I have long maintained that a good cast can cover any fault, but there appears to be a limit to the amount of damage that even the highest caliber of actors can overcome. Paced and written like a Edutainment cartoon for learning-challenged adults, the film lacks any of the charm or drama that its trailers promised, and serves as a sad reminder of just what Doldrums season represents, even for can't-miss indie films.

Some terrible films leave you in a frothing rage (Timothy Green, Amazing Spider-Man), while others leave you in a stunned daze (To Rome with Love, Red Tails). This film, on the other hand, just left me sad, wishing that somehow I could go back, and see the movie that the trailers had actually advertised, instead of this botched rendition of one that they had not.

Final Score:  3/10

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