Niagara Gazette — “The Railway Man” and “Finding Vivian Maier” both touch upon what memories mean to individuals. One is a documentary, and the other is based on a true story, that of an Englishman whose obsession with trains serves to act as his salvation.
In “The Railway Man,” Colin Firth plays the soft-spoken Eric Lomax, a gentleman who reads train schedules for fun and enjoys riding the rails to nowhere in particular, a hobby he’s enjoyed his entire life. It’s this passion for railroading that holds the key to the film’s compelling story, a story that will lead to a painful reconciliation.
In the early 1980s, we meet Lomax, a retired World War II veteran, who enjoys getting together with his friends, although even when they meet to talk about the past, he prefers to look up arcane railroad information. On one of his railway journeys through the English countryside, he sits across from Patti (Nicole Kidman), a former nurse whose life is also aimless. These two wanderers connect intellectually and physically. Their courtship is a whirlwind, their wedding almost a given considering that they seem like two perfectly-matched lost souls.
Patti doesn’t know about the depth of Eric's demons. As time progresses, their marriage becomes more tense as his post-traumatic breakdowns worsen. To her credit, she doesn’t take an angry or threatening approach. Instead, she encourages him to confront the horrors he has faced.
Up to this point, we’ve only been given hints as to what Eric is recalling that makes his daily life a struggle. Director Jonathan Teplitsky and his screenwriters, Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, have carefully and smartly laid the groundwork for the movie’s dramatic second half, using Lomax’s memoir as a framework.
We go back in time and learn that Lomax was a signals engineer during the second World War. After the British in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese in 1942, Lomax and some of his fellow soldiers are sent to an isolated prison camp. The purpose of the brutal camp is to provide crude shelter for slave labor. The Japanese are building a railway line through Thailand’s jungle. The prisoners are being forced to lay the tracks. Lomax stays with his original friends, all electronics experts, and they rig up a radio hoping to be able to listen to a gentle voice, perhaps a song from far away. Anything to replace the harsh sounds of their existence.