Niagara Gazette

April 22, 2014

CALLERI: Something remembered is the theme of two new movies

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

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.

“The Railway Man.” recounts the abusive beatings some of the British soldiers received at the hands of their captors and the harrowing memories of harsh torture that haunted Lomax as he aged. It is Patti’s belief that a visit to the site of the prison camp will help her husband come to terms with what torments him. What we discover is heartfelt and emotional, but not without intense anger.

Its strong personal dramatics aside, the movie also offers large-scale scenes of war and its aftermath, and also of life in rural England. Along with Firth and Kidman, the entire cast is very good, including Jeremy Irvine as young Eric, Stellan Skarsgard as one of the former signal corps soldiers, and Tanroh Ishida and Hiroyuki Sanada as two key Japanese characters.

“The Railway Man” is about the tragedy of war and the struggle for redemption. This is a serious, deliberate, and quietly powerful motion picture.

"Finding Vivian Maier” is a compelling film about a shy, secretive, and mysterious woman, who was born in New York City, grew up in France, and lived most of her life in Chicago working as a nanny.

Vivian Maier was the daughter of Maria Jaussaud, who was French, and Charles Maier, who was from Austria. Maier moved between the United States and France many times during her childhood, living with her mother in the Alpine village of Saint-Bonnet-en-Champsaur, which is near Grenoble.

She was a collector of many things. In fact, she was a borderline hoarder. Her current fame has resulted from the photographs she took of people and places, photos no one knew about until a young man named John Maloof, also an avid collector, bought a sealed trunk at an auction filled with 100,000 negatives of Maier’s astonishing images. He was stunned by what he discovered.

Maloof, and his co-director Charlie Siskel, have made an engaging movie that details Maloof’s efforts to bring Maier’s now highly-acclaimed photographs to the public. The filmmakers went to France to explore Maier’s childhood and to talk to her relatives.

Children she raised are interviewed, as are some of their parents, including talk show host Phil Donahue.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, Maier, with her beloved Rolleiflex camera on hand, quietly and unobtrusively chronicled what she saw on the streets of Chicago. The movie about her is not only fascinating, but it’s also a remarkable study of obsession.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.