Tracks of the years to produce The Railway Man

Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman play Eric and Patti Lomax. Picture: Jaap Buitendijk
Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman play Eric and Patti Lomax. Picture: Jaap Buitendijk

The screenwriter of The Railway Man knew it’d be a challenge to translate Eric Lomax’s life story to the big screen. The solution, it turns out, was Lomax’s wife.

When British writer/producer Andy Paterson first read Eric Lomax’s harrowing memoir The Railway Man, he knew it would make a great film. What he didn’t know was that it would take 14 years to finally bring it to the big screen. “I think we knew it was going to be tough to eclipse the book,” says Paterson of the story, which details the torture and decades’ worth of post-traumatic stress that the Scottish Signals officer experienced after being forced to work on the aptly named Burma-Thailand “Death Railway” following the Japanese defeat of the Allied forces in Singapore in 1942.

“The book was so beautifully written; it captured the voice of a man who told such a shocking and epic story that you just wouldn’t have wanted to have done it unless you could do justice to the scale of it, which meant it was going to be expensive.”

Starring Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, and Nicole Kidman as his wife, Patti, the film certainly isn’t short of star wattage. Nor is it particularly small in scale. Cutting between 1942 and the 1980s, the film required a complex shoot that took the production from Australia to Thailand to Scotland and back again.

But after securing the rights from, of all people, The Who’s manager Bill Curbishley (“We shared a passion for it,” smiles Paterson), the biggest hurdle Paterson faced was finding a way to crack the book cinematically.

“That was a quite a challenge,” he says. Co-writing the film with 24-Hour Party People screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce, he began by trying to write a linear adaptation of The Railway Man that would tell Eric’s story from beginning to end. They soon realised that was going to be too big, not least because it would mean audiences wouldn’t meet Colin Firth until roughly two-and-a-half hours in. Instead, having got to know Patti and Eric over they years, they decided to frame Eric’s story with something he gave very little coverage to in his memoir: the importance that Patti – whom he met and married in the early 1980s – played in helping him confront his demons.

“She refused to believe that her role in this story could amount to anything compared to what those men went through, which we understood,” elaborates Paterson, “but at the same time, she represents the millions of families that have to cope with the wreckage of war when these men come back, so we wanted to expand that story.”

Played by Kidman in the film, Patti becomes instrumental in releasing Eric from the private hell in which he’s suffering as she fights to hold on to her marriage and the man with whom she fell in love. “Patti is not someone who is impressed by [celebrity], but when Nicole and Colin came to their house, I think she was very impressed by how much Nicole understood that you only know what love means when times are very hard.”

Having found a way to frame the story, though, Paterson knew there was another major problem in bringing The Railway Man to the big screen: the audience would know the ending going in. “We always knew that the film would, at this stage, be marketed as a story of revenge and reconciliation, so we had to find a way to bring tension to that.”

That was hard, not least because Lomax wasn’t really able to articulate why he went from feelings of revenge to forgiveness upon meeting his tormentor, Takashi Nagasa, years later, on the real bridge on the river Kwai (they formed a friendship that lasted until Nagasa’s death in 2011). “We completely believed that he wanted to kill this man, but Eric couldn’t explain why he didn’t. He would say, ‘Somehow, the pain just went away.’ Frank and I would just look at each other and say: well, we can’t write that.”

To get a handle on it, they talked to Helen Bamber, director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, who was the first person to really help Lomax understand that he was not alone. “She explained quite a lot about what torture does to you. She describes it as ultimate feeling of powerlessness because everything that makes you human is being stripped from you.”

In dramatising the first confrontation between Eric and Takashi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), they therefore had to find a way to subtly show that Eric had some control over both his own life and Takashi’s. “Inevitably the events aren’t exactly as they happened,” confesses Paterson, “but we were trying to get to a point where that’s what it felt like for Eric.”

If it took a long time to get this right, there was, says Paterson, one advantage to the lengthy development process. “Colin Firth kindly won an Oscar just as we were finally getting the money together, which unlocked a lot of things.” Indeed, having previously worked with Firth on Girl With A Pearl Earring (which Paterson produced), Paterson knew The King’s Speech star was key to playing Eric – even if Paterson did eventually talk him out of attempting to replicate Lomax’s Scottish accent. “I think it always takes part of an actor’s range to be dealing with accents and in the end we made the decision we wouldn’t go with it.”

Sadly, Eric Lomax passed away last year, so while he made it onto set when they were shooting near his and Patti’s home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, he never got the chance to see the finished film. Patti Lomax, however, has been very supportive of the film and attended its world premiere in September at the Toronto Film Festival.

“I think she feels it has captured him, even though it only shows a tiny fraction of what he went through,” Paterson says. “And I’m delighted to say she’s having fun. When she came onstage at Toronto there was a huge [ovation]. She deserves it. She’s had many years of fighting for Eric and then looking after him.”

• The Railway Man is on general release from 10 January.