The Australia-UK co-production The Railway Man had been gestating ever since former British soldier Eric Lomax wrote his 1995 memoir about his experiences building the Thai/Burma Death Railway during World War Two. Bringing a tale of torture and healing to the big screen was never going to be an easy task, yet when Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (Better Than Sex, Gettin' Square and Burning Man) came on board, magic seemed to happen.
This is about the importance of actually speaking after years of not speaking.
Recent Oscar winner Colin Firth, probably the only British actor possessing the old world charm and emotional depth to accurately convey Lomax's experiences, became passionate about the project. And even when Rachel Weisz dropped out when The Bourne Legacy went schedule, Firth suggested Nicole Kidman. Kidman in turn was keen to play Lomax's wife, Patti, in part because she had long wanted to work with Firth. Ultimately the ease they have as husband and wife on screen is palpable.
“We knew each other a little bit, so it helped open the channels of communication,” Firth explains. “I think Nicole is an extremely fine actress who has always made fearless choices, interesting choices. I had a feeling that she would appreciate this and that we would react well together. I don't know her well enough to know what experiences in her life might be brought to the story, but one just has a sense about these things.”
Kidman has admitted that she was thinking of her own experiences helping husband Keith Urban to break free from his addictions when she found herself attracted to play Patti Lomax, who helped her husband deal with his trauma and to find happiness. Kidman even alludes to it in the film's press notes.
“I'd never had the chance to play a woman who gets to stand by her partner, her lover, her husband through very difficult times and it's something I feel very strongly about and have done in my own personal life,” she says. “I do believe there's a way in which love can heal, by just gently, slowly, encouraging someone to confront things, and I wanted to do that on screen. That's the thread Patti and I share, obviously in very different situations, but I connected to her.
“I've always believed that people fuse through pain. People don't fall in love, or really find deep love when everything is good. When you really find it is when you have to go through pain together. And if you choose to stay together you really find something much deeper.”
To keep the story fresh Teplitzky didn't read the book until two months prior to shooting. “I hadn't been part of the 10 years of development and when you read a book you are about to turn into a film you want to have ideas fresh in your mind,” he explains. “I wanted to initiate access to both Eric and Patti so they told us a lot of stuff we were able to incorporate into the screenplay.”
Patti does not figure a great deal in the book, so Kidman had to make every scene count. The film, shot in Scotland, Queensland and Thailand, and based on a screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Patterson, switches back and forth in time, with Jeremy Irvine (War Horse) playing Lomax at 21 and Tanroh Ishida in the difficult role of Takashi Nagase, the interpreter who causes Lomax's most intense torture – waterboarding – after he discovers he has a radio.
The waterboarding in the film is graphic, so the film brings home the brutality of the practice. Lomax had been upset when it was reported that President Bush had given permission for its use. Around the time of Zero Dark Thirty's release Mark Boal told the New Yorker that based on research, waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program to catch Osama Bin Laden.
“It was actually an incredibly complicated thing to film and Jeremy did an amazing job,” Teplitzky recalls. “The film was shot very fast so we didn't have time to overly plan the scene. We first spent a day shooting the emotional elements that I felt were most important and then Jeremy spent a day with the stunt guys to make it look technically real.”
The problem for Firth was in portraying the lifelong anguish, which resulted from the scenes Irvine had filmed.
“Colin is in a sense the foundation of the picture and the preparation was difficult for him,” Teplitzky says. “He had to be articulate in his own mind regarding what it may have been like. Luckily he had access to Eric who was a very straight-talking person who would explain it all in a very matter-of-fact way. You could ask Eric anything.”
Firth: “The film isn't just about what happened in 1943, or what happened when Eric met Patti Lomax or what happened when he even wrote the book. This is about the importance of actually speaking after years of not speaking. And when I met Eric and Patti I realised that this story didn't end with the War or with the book – it was still going on. I was sitting in their living room and their story was continuing in front of me. Now as filmmakers we are part of the story-making process and if we compromise it after all this time, if we are unfaithful or we tell lies or we are lazy, then we've betrayed the whole thing. So you feel like you've been entrusted with something quite important in that respect.”
The Railway Man, not unlike Stephen Frears' Philomena, is a story of forgiveness. In the same way that Judi Dench as Philomena Lee goes back to Ireland to confront the nuns who wronged her, Lomax travelled to Thailand to confront Nagase. Rather than kill him though Lomax forgave him.
“We all know forgiveness is a good idea,” notes Firth. “It's in all the great scriptures and creeds and so the principle is fine. But you might as well ask everybody to love each other. It's a great notion but can you achieve it? I think that you do the principle a great disservice if you're trite about it. This film is anything but that. It's not just about the importance of forgiveness, it's about how difficult it is. It's about what it costs. It's about how much courage is needed, how much sacrifice has to be made and how much of a personal revolution you might have to achieve.”
Did Teplitzky ask Lomax why he never forgave Nagase?
“Not specifically, but one of the first questions I asked him was, 'Would you have killed him?' I was with Colin and he just looked at us and said 'Yes'. That was his plan. But when he met Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada from The Wolverine) everything became the opposite. He was presented with a very humble and very dignified person, so immediately he was not confronted by the monster he'd imagined. They spent some time together and he realized eventually he was in a way just like him – a 20 year-old kid caught up in something that none of them had any control or power over. One of the things about torture is that the physical elements of torture heal and go away quite quickly, but the emotional scars last forever. It's about loss of control and humiliation and to regain those things is a huge process.
“Eric said to me one day that if you share an experience with a person, whether good or bad, they are the only one you can directly discuss that experience with because you were both involved. In doing that with Nagase he became a human being as opposed to an abstract monster and the focus of his hatred that he'd been harbouring for so many years.”
Helen Bamber, who spent two and a half years in Belsen concentration camp at the age of nineteen, was a key figure in Lomax's rehabilitation. “Helen worked with torture victims and Eric was the only person ever able to confront their torturer and the only person to ever forgive them,” Teplitzky explains. “In many ways love is a very healing thing, even if it's a cliché. If Eric had been a man on his own who knows where he would have ended up? But having Patti's love and in his life gave him something that made the act of taking revenge a much more complicated thing. How you go about killing someone like that? Blind revenge is probably an easier thing to do but then the consequences catch up with you later.”
Lomax, an obsessive lover of trains – hence the title – passed away in 2012 after being able to visit the set even if he never saw the finished film.
“It's bittersweet in the fact that he's not still here, but it's also a film I think he would not have sat down and watched,” Teplitzky admits. “He didn't need to do that.”
Watch 'The Railway Man'
Sunday 8 August, 8:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada, Stellan Skarsgård, Marta Dusseldorp, James Fraser, Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hobbs