As I'm sure I have written previously, I have a deep-rooted dislike of war movies, especially those in which one is introduced to a diverse group of men (including the usual racial stereotypes) in order to sit back and watch them dispatched one by one. However I have no such antipathy to prisoner of war films from the comedic, such as "Stalag 17", to the tragic, such as "Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence".
While it visits the same location and deals with the same appalling treatment meted out to the brave, suffering soldiers by their Japanese captors in the classic "The Bridge on the River Kwai", this film is not an action flick. Rather it is concerned with lingering trauma and reconciliation. Based on the autobiographical book by Eric Lomax, the film begins in 1980, some thirty-five years after the liberation of the POWs forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway. Colin Firth plays the 60-ish year old Eric, a long-time railroad buff, who 'meets cute' with somewhat younger nurse Patty (Nicole Kidman) while sharing a train carriage. A scruffy and solitary man, he finds himself falling in love much to his own surprise, and they soon marry. However it is not a case of 'happy ever after', as she soon becomes aware that he has recurrent nightmares and is suffering post-traumatic stress. The film cuts back and forth between the strained present and the horrific past, where actor Jeremy Irvine movingly portrays the young Eric.
He and his mates steal materials to build a primitive radio receiver in order to learn how the outside war is developing. When the device is discovered by the Japs, he bravely takes the brunt of the blame. His interrogators are convinced that he was transmitting classified data to their enemies -- but 'where is the speaker?' he protests -- and led by interpreter Takeshi Nagase he is ruthlessly tortured for many weeks. His only 'confession' is to blurt out that the war is going badly for his captors, who have been brainwashed into believing that victory is inevitable. When the camp is liberated, the Japanese officers are tried for war crimes, but Nagase bluffs that he was 'only an interpreter' (and not a member of the secret police) and escapes punishment.
Stellan Skarsgard, a fellow POW and life-long friend, reveals many of the above details to Patty who desperately wants to help her Eric fight his demons. When Skarsgard finds a newspaper report of how Nagase is not only still alive but still profiting from the past by working as a guide at the war camp site -- now a tourist attraction! -- he urges Eric to ease his anger and seek the revenge that has been eating him alive. Eric is unwilling to revisit the scene of his despair until a horrific and selfless act by Skarsgard spurs him to action. When he goes back to the source of his nightmares, he finds the mature Nagase a thoughtful and greatly changed man, who has made 57 'pilgrimages' to the site in the intervening years. Eric's initial fury and murderous intentions gradually give way to forgiveness.
A few words on the main cast: Firth and Skargard are both excellent and it is no great stretch for Firth to be believably playing a slightly older man. Kidman -- very much for a change -- has drabbed down her usual 'glam' and gives her best recent performance. Apparently the role was intended for Rachel Weisz who was unable to take it because of scheduling conflicts, but I do believe that she would not have done as fine a job as Kidman has managed here. Finally, both Japanese actors embodying the erstwhile fiend Nagase were fine, but Hiroyuki Sanada playing the older character was remarkable. He apparently started his career as an action star, but then became the first Japanese actor to play with the Royal Shakespeare Company (as the fool in "Lear"). He has subsequently appeared in a number of English-speaking roles, most recently in "Mr. Holmes". Apparently Nagase and Eric eventually became fast friends until their respective deaths this century. Concerned and loving wife Patty was still alive for the movie's premiere a few years ago.
It's a powerful and moving tale of love and redemption and I'm surprised at how much I liked it!