Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Railway Man by David Hirschfelder (2014)

Review by Travis Elder

The Railway Man soundtrack album cover
Purchase on Amazon CD | Amazon MP3 | iTunes
Best Cues of 2014 Nominees:
19. Maybe We Both Lived For This Day - Amazon MP3 | iTunes
20. The Railway Man – Closing Suite  - Amazon MP3 | iTunes

David Hirschfelder’s score for the World War II biopic, The Railway Man, takes us on a spiritual, sometimes emotionally traumatic journey with Lt. Eric Lomax, his suffering as a POW and ultimate catharsis in confronting his Japanese torturer years later.  Lomax, along with about 80,000 others, became POWs after the devastating surrender of the British to the Japanese at the Battle of Singapore in 1942.  Forced to work on the Siam-Burma Railway, also known as the death railway because thousands died in its construction, Lomax sought hope in the news stories of the war’s progress over a radio he secretly built.  When his Japanese captor discovered the radio he brutalized and tortured Lomax.  After his release from captivity Lomax continued to suffer emotional trauma from his terrorizing experiences resulting in disruption to his personal relationships.  Years later when he unexpectedly gets to meet with his former tormentor face to face at the site of his ordeal Lomax discovers forgiveness in his heart where he expected only hate to continue.

Although I have not seen the movie, I feel like I have experienced Lt. Lomax’s journey because Hirschfelder pairs his music so carefully to Lomax's experiences giving each cue a distinctive personality.  For example, Japanese flavor is infused throughout the score through the use of various Japanese percussion instruments such as the booming taiko drums in the Fall of the British Empire.  The train itself gets a musical interpretation with fast-paced, chugging drums in His Whole Life Has Been Trains.  A brief, sinister sounding theme played by solo cello, introduced in the Opening Titles (1:05-1:54) and appearing in What Do You Think, Eric? and The Home Coming perhaps symbolizes the horrors of war.

The most dominant personality of the score is the music associated with Lomax's torture and suffering as a POW.  Approaching the task of providing musical accompaniment to scenes of gross inhumanity no doubt presented a daunting task.  Torture is so completely foreign to most everyone's sense of humanity, decency, and experience.  Appropriately then Hirschfelder creates a very foreign, primitive, and primordial sounding mixture of various chimes, gongs, unsettling tones, and a dark and dissonant orchestra that sounds just as foreign to the ear as it is to see one person treat another so brutally.  What Do You Think, Eric?, The Death Railway, and The Bad Things We Do are among the cues highlighting this sound.  At times the music becomes frightening such as the chilling music in The Drowning Room, which accompanies a terrifying water boarding torture scene.  This music is not easy listening, but then it was not meant to be.  Torture is harsh and brutal and the score reflects that reality.

The heart of the story, Lt. Lomax's journey to make peace with the past that has tormented his days ever since, is given a bittersweet theme, first introduced in Opening Titles (:21-1:00).  The theme appears sparingly until the end of the film when Lt. Lomax unexpectedly gets to confront his former Japanese torturer in Maybe We Both Lived For This Day.  The theme represents Lt. Lomax's cathartic release of hate and bitterness, but given the tragedy of his experiences the theme never swells with sappy romanticism.  Instead it appropriately remains poignant in its melancholy restraint.  The best performance of Lomax's theme occurs in the album's highlight, The Railway Man Closing Suite.  The suite is a compilation of several earlier cues including a plaintive, but beautiful shakuhachi flute treatment of the main theme in The War Graves alternated with full performances of the theme by the orchestra, a mournful adagio performed by the Liberis children's choir in The Bravest Thing I've Ever Seen,  and the moving first half of The Home Coming.  It is truly unfortunate that more scores these days do not offer a suite like this that so perfectly sums up some of the most memorable parts of the score.

The strength of The Railway Man is its strong, dynamic narrative and its moving main theme, both of which are appreciated even more with repeated listens.  It is obvious the composer put a lot of thought into each cue.  I really like how well Japanese elements are integrated into the score and I appreciated Hirschfelder's attention to detail such as his musical interpretation of a moving train.  While I may not return often to the parts of the score dealing with Lt. Lomax's torture, it is because of those passages that I will savor the score's emotional finale even more.  With all its horrors and triumphs, World War II is something the world must continue to remember and understand.  David Hirschfelder's score for The Railway Man helps us to do just that and for that reason among others is well worth the time and effort to explore and appreciate.

Track Listing:
1. The Railway Man — Opening Titles (2:41)
2. Brief Encounter (3:52)
3. The General Idea (2:40)
4. Fall Of The British Empire (2:12)
5. What Do You Think, Eric? (4:18)
6. His Whole Life Has Been Trains (3:41)
7. Building The Radio (1:57)
8. Discovering The Radio (1:19)
9. Axis Forces In Full Retreat (2:30)
10. The Bravest Thing I’ve Ever Seen (3:05)
11. The Death Railway (5:24)
12. I’m Going To Send Him A Message (2:31)
13. Bamboo Cages (1:27)
14. At The Beginning Of Time (2:19)
15. The War Graves (:47)
16. The Bad Things We Did (2:17)
17. The Drowning Room (2:24)
18. The Home Coming (4:32)
19. Maybe We Both Lived For This Day (6:55)*
20. The Railway Man — Closing Suite (9:22)*

Total running time of score: 1:06:08
*ScoreCues 2014 Best Cues Nominee

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