Imagine you’re a soldier who’s been captured by the enemy and tortured. Now imagine, decades later, you get the opportunity to encounter one of your torturers and finally find solace after years of struggling to come to terms with what had happened during the war.
That’s the challenge that Colin Firth faced for his latest role in the film “The Railway Man,” which has its limited release this weekend. The film is based on the autobiography of the same name written by Eric Lomax. Bringing to life a character who endured so much throughout his life presented a major hurdle for Firth.
“I’ve never experienced that kind of brutality,” say Firth. “I’ve never experienced that captivity. I’ve never been in the presence of someone who wants to degrade me comprehensively.”
During World War II, Eric was among the British soldiers captured by the Japanese during the surrender of Singapore in 1942. The Japanese forced Lomax and other prisoners of war to march to prison and later perform hard labor to build infrastructure such as bridges and railways. Throughout all of this, Lomax received torture from many of his Japanese captors.
These experiences left an indelible mark on Lomax’s psyche, according to Lomax’s widow, Patti Lomax.
“He hated the Japanese with such intensity,” Patti says. “It had been such a long-held obsession of his.”
Later in life, Eric sought out one of his captors whom he learned was still alive— a Japanese interpreter by the name of Takashi Nagase. Their meeting, atop the ceremonial bridge over the river Kwai, became the subject of a 1995 documentary called “Enemy, My Friend?”
As Patti recalls, many around Eric worried when he initially began his search for Nagase that their eventual meeting would end in violence. After all, given the hatred he had for the man and the years of suffering he endured as a result of the trauma he experienced, it didn’t seem too out of sorts.
“It was right up to the last moment that I think Eric intended to kill that man,” Patti says.
Prior to Eric’s death, when Firth met with him while researching the role, he says that the subject of this murderous vengeance made for a quite awkward conversation.
“How do you ask somebody if they meant to kill somebody?” Firth reflects, adding that he stammered as he tried to ask the question—but that Eric saved him the trouble. “You’re sitting politely with people you haven’t known for very long and you’re saying, ‘But Eric, were people around you aware of your intention to um…’ And he said very matter of fact, ‘Kill him.’”
Firth says that Eric had no doubt about his desire to murder Nagase, portrayed in the film by Hiroyuki Sanada. Eric, Firth says, thought through the methods and had imagined the scenario repeatedly in his mind. To Eric, that act would represent closure—but it would never transpire. Both men would walk away with their lives, and Firth says Eric couldn’t determine why he hesitated.
“We found in talking about it together that it’s very difficult to identify exactly what it is that turned him around, if you call it a turn-around, but why he didn’t go through with it,” Firth says.
But for Patti, the reason is a bit clearer. Nagase was no longer the man that Eric had nightmares about for all of those years.
“All of a sudden he was faced by an elderly gentleman the same age as himself, not that young Japanese face in that Japanese war uniform,” Patti says. “Mr. Nagase was obviously very contrite. And I think Eric, in a sense, took on his old army training and became as a gentleman officer, of which he had been, would act. It was a tremendous relief.”
To go from a man filled with a long-standing desire to enact deadly vengeance to someone who can make amends with a past tormentor is quite a journey. For Firth, though, it was not enough to simply portray that anger and frustration because throughout this encounter stood Patti, portrayed in the film by Nicole Kidman.
Eric’s desires to resolve what happened to him during the war often came into conflict with his responsibilities to his wife and kids. That shaped how Firth saw the movie unfold.
“The only way that I could understand that journey we’re looking at is that is actually a love story,” Firth says. “It happens via his marriage, it happens via Patti.”
Of course, even that love is not so simple to Firth either. This film, he would say, does not fall into some sort of cliché in which love saves Eric.
“It was not just Patti’s love for him, patience with him and determination to get him out,” Firth says. “He actually realized he had something that was worth battling with the bitterness.”
And such a description is just alright with Patti, who also does not see her own lived experience in simple terms.
“I would hate people to think it was just a war story,” she says. “I’m proud to think that it is a love story. And it’s a love story with a very happy ending.”