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Rob Edelman: Coming to Terms

How does one reconcile the past when that past is crammed with the worst kind of memories? One way would be to write a memoir. Another would be to make a film. Both approaches apply to THE RAILWAY MAN, a newly-released film that is a screen adaptation of a book by Eric Lomax.

THE RAILWAY MAN is the fact-based account of Lomax, who is played by Colin Firth: a self-effacing, trivia-obsessed railway enthusiast and World War II veteran. At the outset, Lomax meets a stranger on a train. This woman is named Patti Wallace, and is played by Nicole Kidman. The two casually converse and, quickly, they fall in love and marry. However, what Patti does not know is that her new husband is haunted by his experiences during the war and, in particular, his plight while incarcerated in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. While a POW, Lomax was "guilty" of nothing more than attempting to build a radio to get news of the outside world. That is his "crime." And he suffers greatly for it, as he is mercilessly tortured by his captors. Patti must figure all this out, and deal with Eric's psychosis. This is accentuated when she is told, in so many word: "War leaves a mark, Mrs. Lomax."

THE RAILWAY MAN starts off as an idyllic romance but quickly becomes a portrait of a deeply disturbed man who is wrapped up in his memories, and what he must do to cope with those memories. Simply put, the question he must answer is: How do you make peace with your past? Without giving away the details of how Eric takes action, the film puts forth the point that, in order to go on living, in order to maintain your sanity, you have to forgive. There is no other choice here. This may not be easy but, if you do not wish to spend your remaining years wallowing in misery, this is what you must do.

One recent film that also deals with the importance of reconciling the past is PHILOMENA. Another is not as well-known, but it also is a recent Oscar nominee. Its title is THE MISSING PICTURE, and it is a potent, imaginatively made inquiry into the plights and fates of Cambodians back in the 1970s, upon the rise to power of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge, who were tyrants of Hitler-like proportion.

THE MISSING PICTURE is narrated by its director, RithyPanh, who combines clay figurines with archival footage to re-create his past, and the moment in time when his idyllic childhood was forever interrupted upon the coming to power of Pol Pot and the Khymer Rouge. Under Pol Pot, Panh, his family, and countless other Cambodians became "enemies of the state." Millions of Cambodian civilians perished, and THE MISSING PICTURE is especially moving when Panh describes the death of his father.

Given the specifics of the plights of RithyPanh, Philomena Lee, and Eric Lomax, THE MISSING PICTURE, PHILOMENA, and THE RAILWAY MAN are very different films. But overall, they are intensely personal explorations of how one goes about reconciling the most sorrowful, heartrending life experiences.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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