Wars never really end, and as Faulkner said, the past is not even past — almost 70 years after the Japanese surrender in World War II, the horror of the conflict and the behavior of the enemy toward their Allied prisoners continue to trouble the memories of the survivors. A number of histories, memoirs, and novels recount the stories of captured soldiers and civilians, often inspiring some memorable films — most notably David Lean's "Bridge on the River Kwai," but also "King Rat," "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence," and "Empire of the Sun." Now an Australian production, "The Railway Man," returns to the war, to the jungles of Southeast Asia, to the notorious POW camp on the River Kwai.
Based on a memoir by Eric Lomax, a British soldier captured after the fall of Singapore, the movie concentrates on the persistence of memory, the crushing burden of a history of unimaginable pain. In 1980, Lomax (Colin Firth), who calls himself a "railway enthusiast," first meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), who will become his wife, on a train, and with the encouragement of his pals at the Veterans Club, uses his encyclopedic knowledge of English train schedules to figure out a way to meet her on her return journey. Their brief courtship and subsequent marriage initially establish a mildly comic, mildly romantic tone that soon collapses under the burden of Lomax's past.
Deeply disturbed by his memories of the Japanese camp, he experiences nightmares and hallucinations, confuses his daily life with his time in prison, and alienates himself from his wife and friends. Since he refuses to reveal the source of his problems to Patti, she insists that his best friend, and fellow survivor, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) tell her the story of their experience in the war. From that point the script alternates between Eric's present and his past, with frequent flashbacks that sometimes combine reality with delusions.
After a much smaller force inflicted the worst military defeat in British history in Singapore, the Japanese, who regarded a man who surrendered as a person without honor, merely an animal, treated their prisoners severely, violating most of the strictures of the Geneva Convention. In the film they pack the captured soldiers, including the young Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine), into boxcars, bringing them to the River Kwai to build that famous bridge. When the captors learn that their prisoners, under the leadership of Eric, a radio operator, have constructed a receiver, they embark on a campaign of brutal interrogation and punishment.
They beat Eric repeatedly with staffs and pick handles, starve him, confine him in a cramped cage, and worst of all, waterboard him — an act that the United States once officially regarded as torture but now practices with the blessing of Congress, the military, and the CIA. Eric's chief antagonist, the man who haunts both his dreams and his waking life, is Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), the interpreter who yells incessant questions, punctuated with beatings, about the radio and a map of the railroad. Somehow Eric survives the atrocious brutality, but of course remains a profoundly damaged man.
When Finlay discovers that Nagase is alive and now conducts tours of the camp, he urges Eric to return to the River Kwai and lay all his ghosts to rest. Eric's return, and his confrontation with his old tormentor (Hiroyuki Sanada), initially a quest for revenge, turns into something very different, a confrontation that apparently heals his wounded spirit.
The historical truth of the picture's essentially straightforward script underlines its validity and relevance, but simplifies much of the context, so that it lacks a good deal of necessary characterizing information. "The Railway Man" never even hints that Eric Lomax works at any kind of a job, for example, showing only his obsession with trains, as if that provided the entire substance of his life. Beyond the psychic wounds, despite the extraordinary cruelty of his treatment, his body strangely bears no marks or scars, a most unlikely circumstance.
Finally, despite its depiction of the well-known Japanese treatment of military prisoners, its reiterated scenes of clubbings, beatings, the evidence of beheadings, the most disturbing subject in "The Railway Man" raises a troubling question: why is waterboarding torture when the Japanese practice it, but "enhanced interrogation" in American hands?