Reserved, eccentric Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) loves trains. He spends his time train-spotting at stations, and curating his collection of timetables. It’s when travelling on a train that he meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful woman who isn’t put off by his shyness. One whirlwind romance later, and the two are married.
But Eric has a secret, and as they settle into their life together, Patti discovers that he’s a haunted man. He’s dogged by horrifying nightmares and flashbacks, and though he won’t tell her what’s wrong, his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) agrees to reveal the truth. As young men, they were taken prisoner during the Second World War and forced to work on the notorious Thai-Burma railway.
The young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his friends secretly built a radio in the prison camp, and were caught in the act by their Japanese captors. What followed would leave Eric with deep physical and emotional scars – including an enduring hatred for a man called Nagase (Tanroh Ishida/Hiroyuki Sanada). Can Patti help Eric to untangle the pain of the past, and find some kind of peace?
- How would you describe your experience of the film? Did any scenes or performances particularly stand out to you? When a film contains difficult subject matter, like The Railway Man, are we supposed to ‘enjoy’ it, or appreciate it in other ways?
- The Eric we meet at the beginning of the film is defined by his refusal to communicate. How do the filmmakers find ways to dramatise his inner turmoil? Why is it important that the audience has access to the main character’s mental and emotional state?
- How effective is the casting of Jeremy Irvine and Colin Firth as the younger and older Eric? What similarities are there in their performances, and how did they differ? Were you convinced that they could be the same person?
- How did you respond to the romance between Eric and Patti? Why do you think the filmmakers chose to begin the story in this way, and how did these scenes help to set the emotional tone? Why do the two characters bond so quickly?
- Which parts of the film did you find hardest to watch, and why? Is it more difficult to witness physical suffering or emotional trauma onscreen? Is there an ‘appropriate’ emotional response to scenes like these, and if so, what is it?
‘I don’t believe in this code of silence that you have.’ – Patti
- How does Patti help Eric and Finlay to break their ‘code of silence’? What risks does she take, and what are the emotional consequences? Why can talking about trauma be such a crucial part of the healing process?
- What contrasting aspects of human nature do we see in The Railway Man? Does the film draw any conclusions about what people are ultimately like, and if so, what are these conclusions? Do you think the film’s portrayal of characters on both sides of the conflict was realistic, and why, or why not?
‘The Japanese education system doesn’t talk about this. . . . When I started research I was shocked . . .’. –- Hiroyuki Sanada (Nagase)
- Do all cultures have a similar ‘blind spot’ about parts of their past, and if so, what might these be in our own culture? What might be the consequences of not confronting the darker chapters in history? What responsibility do we have to educate ourselves, and is it possible for countries to really make reparations for their past actions?
- What moral questions are raised when making a film like The Railway Man, which dramatise a real person’s private and painful experiences? How much artistic license should be taken? Does it make a difference whether this person is living or dead, or to what degree they have been consulted?
‘You have no honour.’ – Nagase
- What does the film have to say about concepts of heroism, courage, honour and shame? What particular significance might they have in both English and Japanese culture? What place do you think these concepts have in stories about war?
- We see Eric wrestling with his anger against Nagase. Would he have been morally justified in killing him, and why or why not? Why are revenge stories so compelling? What – if anything – is the difference between justice and revenge?
- How has Nagase changed when we meet him as an older man, and how has he tried to make amends for his past? Could he ever do enough to really make things right, and if so, what would it take?
- Why does Eric decide to forgive Nagase, and what does forgiveness entail for him? What eventually enables him to offer it? Would you describe his forgiveness as a choice, an action, a feeling, a necessity, or a combination of these?
‘Sometime the hating has to stop.’ – Eric
- Do you agree that forgiveness is always the best route forward when atrocities have been committed, and if so, why? What should be the relationship between forgiveness and justice? What, if anything, should compel human beings to forgive, not only in extreme cases but in the everyday?