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Off the rails
on 24 January 2014
Based on the 1995 memoir of Eric Lomax, the Royal Signals Officer who was tortured by the Japanese when deployed on the construction of the infamous Burma railway, this film uses flashbacks to show the reasons for his emotional repression with violent outbursts of post traumatic stress decades after the event. Colin Firth, a master in this kind of role, plays the older Lomax, with Jeremy Irvine putting in a strong performance as his younger self, earnest, floppy-haired and prepared with quiet bravery to take the rap for the assembly of an illicit radio receiver. Nicole Kidman assumes a convincing English accent to play the sympathetic new wife who is determined to extract Lomax from his mental agony. When Lomax discovers in the 1980s that Takashi Nagase, the young interpreter who played a key part in his torture, is still alive, working, of all things, as a guide at the Kanchanaburi War Museum (close to the famous bridge on the river Kwai) he is initially bent on revenge as a means of exorcising his demons.
I was disappointed by the first half: dialogues often seem stilted as in the "Brief Encounter" style meeting on a train between Lomax and his future wife Patti. Lomax looks much younger than the fellow officers with whom he has kept in contact, and he could have done with a few more scars and grey hairs. The sets "back home" have more of a 1950s feel than the 1980s as I remember them. Worst of all, the earlier scenes in the jungle are often confusing or hammy, apart from the final harrowing torture in the dreaded hut. Overall, the script and direction often appear wooden until the final resolution.
The film was saved for me by the second part of the film which is unpredictable, moving and well-developed. Throughout, the scenery is beautiful, both in the Kwai valley, despite the horror of the slave labour and brutality, and in the scenery around Lomax's stark grey house overlooking a golden beach and the sea at, I think, Berwick-upon-Tweed.
I have read that, in fact, Lomax had a first wife for the best part of forty years, whom he left for Patti, and two daughters, all largely omitted from his memoir. I understand why the director let this stand, in order perhaps to create a tighter and more focused drama, but this has been at the price of concealing and neglecting other lives directly blighted by what Lomax suffered.
The film may not do justice to the highly acclaimed autobiography.