The Railway Man
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky
There’s a scene in “The Railway Man” in which the central character Eric (played by Jeremy Irvine as a young man and by Colin Firth in middle age) observes that all the great railways of the world have been built with cheap, immigrant labor. He’s a self-professed “railway enthusiast” and, in later life, pours through rail timetables in such a manner than he’s able to switch trains and reroute himself to avoid delays, while traveling through England collecting railway memorabilia. It’s on one of these side trips that he meets the love of his life Patti (Nicole Kidman).
Sadly, however, his observation about railway construction doesn’t come during one of his many conversations about rail travel during his civilian life. It comes after he and other allied servicemen were taken prisoner by the Japanese Imperial Army after the fall of Singapore. The men are transported by train and he’s able to estimate where they are, based on how long they’ve been traveling and in what direction, and surmises that the Japanese have begun building a rail route from Thailand into Burma. He also notes that the British had earlier abandoned the same plan because the working conditions would be too barbaric.
The Japanese selected Eric, and other engineers and radio operators, to repair equipment and vehicles, while the bulk of the prisoners were used as slave labor in the track construction, alongside the similarly enslaved native population. Almost a quarter of a million people worked on the Burma Railway and approximately 100,000 died, including more than 12,000 prisoners of war. Not that these facts are part of the film.
The film itself is somewhat short of facts and does little to provide the big picture of what was going on. It’s somewhat like a “sidebar” article in a textbook, in which there may be a chapter discussion of a general topic and then one particular example given within a sidebar – for example, a mini-biography of a noted industrialist in a chapter on industry. In cinematic terms, “The Railway Man” is like a sidebar to “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” an amazing film that not only shows the struggle and persecution of the men involved but also lends scope to the story.
There’s another scene in “The Railway Man” in which Eric is making rice, at home with Patti, and he carefully shares out the portions and retrieves a single grain that he’s dropped. He’s meticulous in many ways but he’s also a man who survived living in camps where single grains of rice were valued, and where men routinely died of starvation. This is the kind of detail that the film provides but doesn’t explain and the experience of watching the film is probably very different for somebody who has some rudimentary knowledge of the history versus somebody who doesn’t.
In the camp, Eric is tortured following the discovery of a radio the engineers had assembled from parts they smuggled with them from Singapore. It’s a timely film, in this regard, as we continue to discuss the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding, used in recent US wars. Nobody else in the world seems inclined to classify waterboarding and other simulated drowning as anything other than torture.
The film is well acted and is an effective account of a man struggling to come to terms with his own past, and the treatment he encountered at the hands of his Japanese captors. He’s a fundamentally good man trying to live his life, but his nightmares and waking flashbacks are crippling, much to the anguish of Patti who falls in love with him. It’s a good film but not necessarily as a stand-alone enterprise. I would recommend watching it but also watching or reading other material on either the building of the Burma Railway or of experiences in Japanese prisoner of war camps. If not the film “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” perhaps James Clavell’s “King Rat” from his epic series of Asian-themed novels (which also includes “Shogun”) and which was also made into a film.
“The Railway Man” is a strong micro-story in the context of a much larger and poorly presented macro-story. It may make you cry but it won’t provide any great sense of the awesome scope and tragedy you’re glimpsing a small part of, except in terms of the profound effect on one man and his friends, family and colleagues.
Walking with the Enemy
Directed by Mark Schmidt
In contrast to “The Railway Man,” “Walking with the Enemy” manages neither the micro nor macro-level of storytelling very well. In this case, the macro-level is more broadly known, as more people are probably familiar with the Second World War as it played out in Europe than as it affected the jungles of Thailand and Burma. But the film itself is simply weak in almost all aspects of its production.
For much of WWII, as the film tells us, Hungary managed to avoid the worst of the bloodshed. Attention and fighting was focused elsewhere and it wasn’t until 1944 that the Nazis focused their attention on controlling Hungary and also slaughtering its Jewish population. There are some similarities with “The Railway Man” in that the Nazis viewed the Jews even more poorly than the Japanese viewed the allied soldiers who surrendered to them or were captured by them, and this made it easy for each respective group to enslave people and treat them as expendable. And so the central character of “Walking with the Enemy,” Elek Cohen, also finds himself forced to work to repair bombed and broken rail tracks the Germans need for their war efforts.
When Elek and his childhood friend manage to escape and flee back to their village, they find their families and all of the other Jews have disappeared and so they look for answers in Budapest, where they had both previously worked (in another coincidence between the films, they also worked with radio equipment). There they become involved in a massive effort to save Jews, largely driven via the Swiss consular office, through the issuance of falsified Swiss identification papers.
The title of the film comes from Elek’s acquired habit of impersonating a German SS officer to help others and to seek information. The film is loosely based on the story of Pinchas Tibor Rosenbaum, a real life son of a rabbi who engaged in many of the activities portrayed in the film. However, I have read that the real person impersonated a member of Hungary’s Arrow Cross party, as opposed to a Nazi officer, which would change almost all of the dynamics of the film, many of which play out in the way that they do because of the relative power differential between a Nazi officer and the local militia.
What the film does do is to crudely illustrate yet another relatively unknown, micro story of the war. I’m glad that I watched it from a purely informative perspective, despite its apparent inaccuracies, as I wasn’t familiar with this chapter of the larger story at all. However, it’s not a good film in any other sense. It’s actually quite surprising to have seen it on the big screen, because it feels much more like a television movie, and not even a good one of those. It actually has the tone and feel, from scene to scene, of an afternoon soap opera – which is not to demean the profound events being described, but simply the style of filmmaking. Everything seems hurried, the costumes all look like they were just made, the sets seem equally fresh – it all appears “inexpensive.”
The only big name in the production is Ben Kingsley – and his scenes all look like they could have been shot in a very short period of time. That’s a technique used to make a small film appear “bigger” than it is by casting a well known name and paying them their required day rate, but employing them for the shortest time possible. I don’t know for sure that’s what was done here, but it looks that way. And just as I suspect the producers wanted Sir Ben’s time kept to a minimum, you’ll likely wish the film was shorter. Much shorter.
The Other Woman
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
It’s not hard to be the funniest film of the week, this week, but “The Other Woman” manages to be both the funniest and the best. It’s hard to compare across genres, but it presents a more complete experience than, for example, “The Railway Man” which would otherwise be the strongest contender.
Cameron Diaz plays Carly, a successful lawyer who’s not especially good at relationships but who has fallen further into at least like with businessman Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) than with any other recent significant other. All is going along swimmingly until she discovers, rather awkwardly, that Mark is married to Kate (Leslie Mann). Carly doesn’t like to think of herself as a mistress, a title she restricts to women who actually know they’re with married man – a distinction that’s initially lost on the hilariously devastated Kate.
It seems odd to use a phrase like “the hilariously devastated Kate” but that pretty much captures the tone of this movie. It’s a story about adultery, deception, dishonesty and all sorts of potentially very upsetting topics but it is, frankly, hilarious. And it also captures the fact that Leslie Mann is phenomenal in this film – ranging from dejected and depressed to full-on slapstick, sometimes within a single scene. Cameron Diaz is also good, and has top billing, but it’s Mann’s film.
“The Other Woman” is funny, smart, and well produced. It’s the latest attempt to merge the elements of films that have traditionally appealed to either men or women and it does it very well. It’s essentially a buddy movie, as the two women join forces against their common enemy, with strong female leads. This is this weekend’s date movie for most of Hollywood target demographics.