A Tale of Three Movies: Abuse, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase
Eric Lomax with Takashi Nagase

We saw The Railway Man last night, completing our recent hat-trick of “abuse movies.” The other two were Philomena and Twelve Years A Slave.

It was my partner who pointed out the interesting parallels and contrasts between these three stories. Each concerns a person who was dreadfully abused, caught up in an evil system without their knowledge or consent, but simply as an unfortunate accident. Philomena bears an illegitimate child in 1950s Ireland, which leads to the removal of her baby and its forced adoption, sanctioned by the state (in contemporary terminology, outsourced to the Catholic Church).

In 12 Years A Slave Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1840s Saratoga, is duped into being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Finally, The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, appallingly tortured by the Japanese in Burma as a young man in World War II. For the rest of the life he is emotionally crippled by this trauma, and eventually has the opportunity to meet one of his tormentors face to face and decide whether to murder or forgive him.

All three are based on true stories. All continue to have contemporary resonance. We still struggle, as a species with the questions of torture, war, trauma, slavery, racism and what to do about people who don’t follow the socially sanctioned rules for reproduction within marriage.

And all three ask a vital question – is it possible to recover from severe abuse, and is forgiveness an essential, or even desirable, aspect of that process?

Such forgiveness takes two forms – forgiveness of one’s individual abuser(s), and forgiveness of the ideological system in which the abuse takes place. You can have one without the other. It may be too difficult and dangerous on a practical level to return to the scene of the crime, even assuming you would want to do so. This was clearly Solomon Northup’s situation. The evil of slavery was so entrenched in society at the time that his only option was to continue to fight on outside the South as an abolitionist, which was what he did.

Eric Lomax, however, was offered the opportunity to return and offer reconciliation. It is interesting that, according to his second wife Patti (who features prominently in the film, played by Nicole Kidman), he returned to Thailand with every intention of killing his torturer, expecting that to bring him closure, if not inner peace. It was only when they met, and he discovered the reality of Takashi Nagase’s commitment to reconciliation through his work of historical education that Lomax concluded, “Sometimes, the hating has to stop.” This is the most complete reconciliation of the three stories under discussion, and the film depicts it movingly and convincingly.

Philomena’s case is rather more complex. She remains a Catholic and is, in that sense, reconciled with the institution that was the author of her pain. In fact, the film strongly implies that only the Church gives her the moral framework to cope with the very pain it has caused her. She is not reconciled with the individual nun who sanctioned her child’s adoption, and we see that her attitude has, if anything, hardened in old age. And the film does not touch on Philomena’s views towards the Irish government for allowing her child, and many others, to be sold rather than creating a society where illegitimate children were valued and included. So this is a partial, and rather problematic and incomplete, reconciliation.

However, the parallels between these stories are instructive, and it is interesting that they have all been made into successful films at roundabout the same time. The questions they ask have a timeless relevance and are arguably the stuff of compelling drama. In each case, though certain accommodations with the original source material have inevitably been reached, the movie treatment is broadly faithful to the original.

Undoubtedly all are worth seeing. Of the three I found Philomena the most entertaining, 12 Years A Slave the most shocking and The Railway Man the most emotionally satisfying. In addition, The Railway Man gave me a far more powerful insight into the reality of being consistently and repeatedly tortured than the far more morally problematic Zero Dark Thirty I saw about a year ago. At the time I concluded that Zero Dark Thirty was morally justifiable because it showed that torture brutalises the perpetrator as well as the victim. Now that attitude has shifted. Torture is wrong, period. There are no attenuating circumstances and justifications whatsoever.

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