Telling a story about forgiveness in the presence of love is easy. Telling a story about forgiveness in the absence of love is hard.
Forgiveness in the presence of love is done all the time — it’s every story about relationships broken by mistakes, repaired by apologies and righted by the making of amends. It’s every story that ends, “I’m so sorry, baby.” The crack is plastered and sanded; it’s a restoration.
Forgiveness in the absence of love, on the other hand, tends in fiction to turn into the Cobra Kai congratulating Daniel Larusso at the end of The Karate Kid and Daniel deciding there are no hard feelings about all the beatings he took. When the doing of a wrong is significant enough that a story puts weight on it, it’s almost impossible for forgiveness of it not to seem saccharine and unmotivated, there only to speak to the inevitability of happy endings and the virtue of the person who, without bile, simply forgives.
Directed by Jonathan Teplitsky from a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, The Railway Man is a story about the possibility and impossibility of forgiveness in the absence of love. It’s based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, played here by Colin Firth, who was a prisoner of war from 1942 to 1946 after the British Army surrendered in Singapore. Along with many other POWs, Lomax was forced to work on the building of the Burma Railway, and according to his book, following the discovery of some contraband among his possessions, he was brutally beaten, waterboarded, confined in horrible conditions and nearly starved to death.
The film tells the story of his time as a prisoner, his much later marriage to his second wife Patti (Nicole Kidman), and his efforts to cope with what he most likely didn’t call post-traumatic stress disorder. It also tells the story of the reappearance in his life of a man named Nagase Takashi, who had been an interpreter for his captors and had told him, among other things, “You will be killed shortly.” He had thought bitterly of Nagase for many years, and when he learned Nagase was alive and had been working for reconciliation since the war, he barely knew how to react.
The structure of the film is calculated to push against its naturally romantic and redemptive arc. It opens with Eric and Patti’s meeting and chronicles their courtship in a sort of scrapbook of bits of film that are sometimes out of chronological order. It feels very much the way memory does, flitting not from one thing to the thing that happened next, but from one thing to the thing of which it reminds you.
When the flashbacks to the war begin, they’re choppy and don’t always begin and end where they structurally “should.” Back in the present, there’s a rattled, uncomfortable, not-right quality in the early scenes of the Lomax marriage, in which Eric is often seen lying down but shot from awkward angles, or even upside-down. And his memories of his imprisonment sometimes visually echo his seemingly happy marriage, as in a stunning shot of the young Lomax with his head resting perfectly still on a table as he recites a poem to himself. Despite its, for lack of a better word, British-ness, The Railway Man is more striking than pretty, more pebbly than elegant.
That young Lomax appears in the form of Jeremy Irvine, who was the lead in War Horse and makes a pretty convincing Firth-alike, particularly in his uncertain mouth and chin. He makes young Eric a persuasively terrified but honorable young officer, in a way that convincingly gives Firth’s restrained work most of its resonance. It’s believable that this is the same man, but many, many sleepless nights later.
Anyone who knows the story or has read the book will know that the third climactic act, in which Lomax ultimately decides what to do about his hatred of Nagase, is an invention. It takes a slower, more deliberative, more iterative story and condenses it into a single encounter.
But despite the fact that it’s not true, it feels honest. It’s certainly not a documentary version of the story, but it is, as it says it is, “based on a true story.” It’s based on Lomax’s later years in the same way a painting might be based on a lived experience; it’s not the thing itself but an attempt to represent the thing.
The Railway Man is doomed to sag a bit under its baggage of war and suffering and healing. It is the story it is; it is a story about a main character to whom it’s impossible to be unsympathetic no matter what he does, because what he’s endured is so thoroughly documented. It’s a story about trying to be a good person, and it features a man who is a good person, and whose wife is a good person. Its goodness, and its thematic interest in goodness, is a challenge to present meaningfully without Lomax coming off as self-congratulatory.
But the film keeps a sharp edge on his lingering anger, never suggesting either that he’s so good as to stop being angry or that his wife can fix his PTSD.
And in the end, forgiveness in the absence of love is a more interesting and curious idea than forgiveness in the presence of love. Why would you even contemplate showing any mercy to someone who had been merciless to you when that mercilessness was your only real bond? It’s a more philosophical question than why you would show kindness to a friend or spouse or parent who hurt you. It’s more pure: There’s no relationship other than pain. What’s the motivation for grace?