The Railway Man is an adaptation of the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a British World War Two veteran whose horrific experiences in Burma at the hands of the Japanese army were causing him severe post-traumatic stress even thirty-five years later. When Lomax discovers that the interpreter Nagase who facilitated his barbaric interrogation sessions is still alive and working at the same location he decides, with the encouragement of his new wife, to take the trip over to South-East Asia to face his demons and maybe achieve closure.
This is an earnest and worthy film that sets out to explore weighty themes of memory and reconciliation and if you’re looking for an actor who can deliver stiff-upper-lip repressed torment you’re not ever going to do better than Colin Firth but even so, I dunno…it all felt a bit fumbled and awkward to me. It’s structurally odd, starting as it does with a rather charming meet-cute between Firth and Nicole Kidman on a train, the light tone of which is absent from the rest of the film, before working its way through a rather contrived set of flashbacks showing Lomax as a young man being captured and set to work along with the rest of his unit on the infamously high-casualty Burma railway construction project. Presumably this format has been adopted so that the audience gets the information about Lomax’s past in the same sequence as his wife uncovers it but it might have been better for the flow of the film to have presented it in a straightforward chronological order. I was also distracted by Kidman’s haircut and over-precise enunciation and, slightly less trivially, by the decision to cast the defiantly Swedish-accented Stellan Skarsgard as Lomax’s former comrade-in-arms Finlay. Surely we’re not running that short of adequate Scottish actors? It all feels like someone should have run an iron over the script to minimise the wrinkles before they started shooting.
When, however, The Railway Man does get going and is allowed to get to the heart of its story it succeeds well in getting across the horrors of this particular corner of war. The scenes set in the 1940s are both vibrant and harrowing, presenting a convincing depiction of brave and resourceful men struggling to survive in a hostile situation. Jeremy Irvine does an excellent job as the younger Lomax who’s put through hell when his enthusiasm for making maps of trainlines is misinterpreted by his captors and some of the other actors look disturbingly malnourished. The film’s also pretty affecting later, when a stony-faced Firth returns to confront Nagase – you’re genuinely not quite sure how these scenes will play out. There’s enough good stuff in this film to make it worth your while if you’re interested in the subject, or just want a good cry – I was just left feeling that it was a shame that a fairly amazing true story had been put on the screen in such a convoluted fashion.
It’s a risky enterprise, condensing as knotty a book as John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy down into a two hour film, particularly given the existence of the universally admired BBC adaptation from thirty years ago, in which Alec Guinness made an indelible impression as the urbane intelligence agent George Smiley, but Tomas Alfredson’s new version would appear on first viewing to be a minor miracle: it’s uncompromisingly intelligent, confident in its use of the elisions and flashbacks necessary to compress the material into the required time-frame, startlingly convincing in its recreation of its drab 1970s setting and best of all quiet, measured and restrained for most of its running time. Don’t turn up to this spy film expecting Bond or Bourne style action sequences, chases and adrenaline-pumping fights – many of the scenes here involve shabby-looking men discussing arcane points of intelligence protocol in brown rooms while sipping on unappetising looking cups of tea. The technology on display is decidedly unflashy, and is mainly fashioned from bakelite, and James Bond wouldn’t be seen dead in some of the pootling little cars these agents use to get about in. Nevertheless, if you’re prepared to pay attention this is in places as gripping a thriller as I’ve seen in a long time.
I’m not sure I’m up to the job of precising Le Carré’s labyrinthine plot, but in very general terms Tinker Tailor is about the attempts by George Smiley to uncover a mole who has been compromising British security by feeding intelligence to the Russians. The spymaster Control (John Hurt, whose haggard features and booze-addled cunning fit the scenario a treat) has narrowed the identity of the double agent down to one of five men at the highest level of the security services, and Smiley is unofficially brought out of retirement to catch the mole. Gary Oldman gets what might be seen as the futile task of following Alec Guinness in the part of Smiley, but it must be said that he’s pretty successful, largely because he’s able to exploit the reined-in and ever calculating nature of the character. I swear Oldman doesn’t actually utter more than half a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole first half of the film, but you feel his presence throughout and when he starts making his moves his controlled and decisive acts of bravery ring true. Smiley’s far from an emotionless automaton however, and we see just enough of his backstory and personal failures to be able to generate considerable empathy with him.
This unusually subtle and considered characterisation also extends to the many supporting roles in the film. Nobody here comes off as a cartoon or a cliché, and while there are occasional verbal and physical outbursts they’re always earned and laid-in carefully. The cast of this film is actually pretty extraordinary – Colin Firth can presumably pick any part he wants these days, but here he settles for a smallish role as the caddish Bill Hayden, and you also get top turns from Toby Jones, Tom Hardy and Kathy Burke. Other than Oldman, the two actors that really stand out for me are Benedict Cumberbatch as the nervy Peter Guillam (the scene where he’s sent to retrieve a confidential file is nail-bitingly tense) and Mark Strong as the loyal and fearless Jim Prideaux, who is put through a harrowing ordeal in the line of duty, and comes through it with dignity and humanity intact.
Tinker Tailor will probably be in line for a whole bunch of awards come the new year, and will probably deserve to snag a few. This is the kind of thoughtful, complex thriller they used to make in the 70s and it’s bound to repay repeat viewings with interest. Go and see it, but don’t be munching your popcorn too loudly.
Posted in Film, Review
Tagged Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, John Hurt, John Le Carré, Kathy Burke, Mark Strong, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tom Hardy, Tomas Alfredson
The King’s Speech is the kind of British film that can’t really fail, as long as the production team has a basic level of competence and resources. It’s historical, with assorted royals, palaces, prime ministers, has a simple central conflict that’s easily understood and easily sympathised with and features a cast of hardy recognisables who can do this sort of stuff in their sleep: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon (didn’t spot Judi Dench or Maggie Smith but you get the idea). We went to see an early showing at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse and the place was packed out, and I suspect that will continue throughout its run, particularly after the inevitable Oscar and Bafta nods are in.
Heritage-type productions like this can be pretty staid, worthy and boring but happily, while certainly not an exercise in risk-taking, this one is actually very digestible, largely because it cuts to the chase and keeps the pageantry, crowd scenes and spectacle to a minimum. A large bulk of its running time consists of just two men in suits in a consulting room, these being Colin Firth as the painfully shy, stammering Duke of York and Geoffrey Rush as the Duke’s cheerfully irreverent speech therapist. Both of these performances are fantastic. No-one does “emotionally constipated Englishman” better than Firth, and never does the Duke’s speech impediment descend into a set of easily rehearsed tics – you really feel the poor man’s pain at finding himself trapped in a public position he’s hopelessly ill-suited for. Conversely, Geoffrey Rush is such a natural choice for the cheeky Australian who has the job of unearthing his client’s long-suppressed voice that you figure that it would have been pretty much impossible to make the picture without him (might this be why Rush gets an Executive Producer credit?).
Eventually momentous matters of state intrude on these intimate therapy sessions – the death of a king, an abdication, a World War – and the film opens out, but by then we’re hooked and at the end I felt that the picture could have been a bit longer, and it’s rare indeed to feel that in the cinema these days.
In summary: precision engineered to win every award going, but also absorbing, funny, briskly paced and brilliantly acted.