It has taken 15 years for the team behind The Railway Man to bring it to the big screen, a price that had to be paid, they say, to do the story justice. And it’s worth the wait.
“It’s taken a long time to make this film, but I was determined to do it,” explains producer Andy Paterson.
“There are some projects that you realise aren’t going to happen, but this was a story that would never let you go. Every time I finished a film I’d come back to this one.”
Based on the true story of Eric Lomax, a prisoner of war who was forced to work on the notorious Thai/Burma “Death Railway” during the Second World War, the film shifts between 1980s England, and the Far East after the fall of Singapore.
One of thousands of Allied prisoners forced to work on the railway, things went from bad to worse for the young Lomax (played by Jeremy Irvine) when the Japanese discovered a crude radio set he and his comrades had built to find out how the war was progressing in Europe. He was brutally beaten and tortured.
His experiences left him traumatised and shut off from the world.
Decades later, an older Lomax, ably played by Colin Firth, meets Patti on a train and falls in love. They marry, but Patti quickly discovers she is living with someone with very complex problems. She is determined to help Eric overcome his demons, but he makes it very clear the subject is not up for discussion.
When Patti discovers that the young Japanese officer who haunts her husband’s dreams is still alive, she faces a terrible decision. Should Eric be given a chance to confront his tormentor? Would she stand by him, whatever he did?
The discovery ultimately leads Lomax to journey back to the site where he was so brutally treated, and the journey that began as a vengeance mission eventually helps him to reconcile with his own inner turmoil.
“It’s more complicated than just trying to forgive, it’s the process of going from wanting to kill somebody to finding peace and reconciliation,” Paterson explains. “It’s a complex story.”
There were a number of stumbling blocks - finding a way to dramatise the story, and, crucially, securing the necessary investment.
“It was a big movie to make, and big movies are expensive,” Paterson says. “We didn’t want to do it unless we could do it justice.”
Lomax’s story is one that still resonates today, and it’s clear that the filmmakers wanted to stay true, as much as possible, to the late author’s words. The result is a powerful film that stays with you after you leave the cinema.
The film rights were initially secured by The Who manager Bill Curbishley, one of the film’s producers, who felt an immediate affinity with the story.
“I read the book and what struck me, apart from the incredible suffering of Eric Lomax, was the act of forgiveness,” he tells us. “To forgive on that level - I have admiration for people who do things I can’t do - and I couldn’t have forgiven.
“I came to see Eric and Patti and I thought they were fantastic. I persuaded them to give me the film rights. I had to make it - I became a little obsessed with it.”
Finding a way to translate Lomax’s epic story from the page to the big screen proved a challenge, with the main themes running half a century apart. Having met with the Lomaxs a number of times, Curbishley, Paterson and screenwriter Frank Boyce stumbled across a clever way to do it - through Eric’s wife Patti.
“I soon realised that Patti had played a very important part in this man’s salvation,” Curbishley explains.
“She plays it down a lot but I realised that she formed a very important part, so when we were into writing the script it became as much her story as his.
“We also realised that this wasn’t just Eric Lomax’s story, it was a story that involved many other people, many of them who were already dead, who also suffered at the hands of the Japanese, and afterwards. The story had to be told for them, too.”
Curbishley admits it was a long and drawn out process, but looking back he believes that worked in the film’s favour.
“Being superstitious about it, I think it happened when it was supposed to,” he says. “It was because of the time element we were able to get the actors that we did, and they couldn’t have been any better.”
He’s right - this biopic is expertly cast. Oscar winner Colin Firth is at home with Lomax’s quirks and eccentricities as the buttoned up, introverted Englishman by day, while his nighttime lapses into terror are both frightening and heartbreaking.
Also an Academy Award winner, Kidman competently depicts the struggles of Lomax’s wife Patti, with a performance endorsed by the woman herself.
“It’s surreal to watch somebody playing me on screen,” admits Patti. “It’s a drama so it’s been tweaked, but I think Nicole Kidman has done a very good job.”
She jokes: “When I first saw the film I said ‘were you trying to turn me into a tart?’ because Nicole Kidman was doing all the flirting and it wasn’t like that at all, it was the reverse!
“But there was a reason for that. An audience could be coming to see the film who might not know anything about the story. It had to be quickly done, to show the kind of buttoned up man Eric was.
“I think Nicole has captured the confusion and the fright when somebody is having obvious problems and can’t express to you what those problems are. It’s very frightening and confusing for anybody in that situation.
“I know Nicole researched the part a lot, and even my family, who are quite sceptical, said she has ‘got me’.”
Both Academy Award winners are excellent in their roles, but arguably the real star of the show is Jeremy Irvine, who puts in a hauntingly powerful performance as the young Eric.
“It was very clear to me very early on that there was no way on earth that I could imagine what it was like for Eric,” Irvine admits. “For me it was a case of clutching at straws.
“I did a lot for this film that I wouldn’t normally do - I lost a lot of weight and I spent a lot of time walking on my own, because Eric had this horrible isolation for a long time.”
Irvine also committed fully to the film’s confronting torture scenes, particularly to the waterboarding - when water is poured over a cloth covering the face to cause the sensation of drowning - which he underwent for purposes of authenticity.
He explains: “When it came to the waterboarding I could have used a mask, but it would have been me imagining what it would be like, and that wasn’t really good enough for this. I felt the weight of responsibility to Eric.”
The Railway Man will be in cinemas across the UK from tomorrow, January 10.
•In the article ‘Harrowing tale deserving of a global platform’ on Page 8 of last week’s paper, we incorrectly captioned a picture of a Japanese man as “Torturer Mr Nagase”. The photograph was in fact of Mr Kumani, the son of one of the Japanese officers, who should in no way be misrepresented as a torturer. We apologise for any confusion or upset caused.