In the new drama The Railway Man, nurse Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth star as a newly-married couple. Firth plays Eric Lomax, abortion a former British officer who was captured and tortured by the Japanese during World War II. Patti, here his wife portrayed by Kidman, doesn’t know about his past when she marries him but she eventually learns about the abuse he faced as a young man. As Patti learns of the abuse her husband faced, the feature flashes back to a young Eric (portrayed by Jeremy Irvine) as he faces brutal treatment for attempting to build a radio for his fellow soldiers, who spent their days working on the railway for the Japanese.
The feature is based on the nonfiction book of the same name, written by Eric Lomax himself . Years after the war ended, Eric’s wife Patti and he started writing letters to Mr. Nagase, one of the men responsible for Eric’s torture but when Eric first met Nagase once again, he wanted to kill him in cold blood. Thankfully, he overcame that emotion and even forgave the man responsible for so much turmoil in his life.
ClotureClub.com and I recently had the opportunity to talk to Andy Paterson, one of the film’s screenwriters, and Patti Lomax (portrayed by Kidman in the film), who witnessed her husband’s journey from torture victim to forgiving soldier firsthand.
John: Patti, can you talk about the first time you learned about your husband’s torture? I know you met on the train and then you got married. And then it was on the honeymoon when he had the first nightmares (about the torture)?
Patti: Yes, the film has got a great deal of truth in it. It’s amazing considering it’s a drama and it’s a book. I know some dramas have no relation whatsoever to the subject but this is quite remarkable in its truth. I actually found out about Eric’s story when he eventually agreed to go and receive counseling from a wonderful charity in London called the “Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture,” which was really set up to help people from Iraq and other countries in modern times. However, they like to have the family present during counseling sessions and with great skill over a period of about two years… they drew out this story and that is how I found out about it. We’d been about seven years together beforehand and [I] knew absolutely nothing. These people don’t talk about it.
ClotureClub: And did you know about the whole railway? The history…
Patti: Not a lot. I’d been a wartime child. I knew that people who’d been out there had a bad time, but exactly how bad a time, I was not really aware but Eric had told me he had been caught and made prisoner in Singapore and I did know about the fall of Singapore because it was one of the biggest defeats that Britain ever had…
ClotureClub: How did you [Andy] find out The Railway Man story? Did you read the book?
Andy: Yeah, we were given the book and it was such a stunning story. Not an obvious film to begin with because it’s a very complicated story and you’ve got the very basic screenwriting problem– that people are already going to know the ending. There was no way we could keep that a secret, particularly as the book was already out there. So it was a complicated story to think about how to turn a film. Fortunately, Eric and Patti were incredibly generous in welcoming us into their lives. It took many, many years, but we finally found a way, partly it was about bringing Patti’s story into it because she’s not mentioned very much in the book. Partly because a lot of the book was written in 1945 and then a manuscript pulled out of a desk many years later. Partly I think because it was really hard for those men to engage with their emotions and to write about them. So after many years, we sort of convinced Patti that she represents the millions of families who deal with the wreckage of war so it’s much more than just her story, however extraordinary that is. Certainly she was reluctant to accept that her story could mean anything compared to what those men went through on the railway, which we completely understood, but it is those families that for decades have to put up with men and women coming back from war that simply can’t deal with what they’ve been through. We’re not, as a species, very good at witnessing horrors and then just coming back to ordinary life and being able to join the two together.
John: How did you balance telling an honest story with the more graphic aspects of the story because you don’t want to focus too much on what Eric went through but you want to be honest about his experiences?
Andy: Yeah, it was a debate that we had from start to finish– how much we had to show to do justice to what these men went through and to give the audience the sense of what they’d been through without making it unwatchable. If you count the minutes of violence in the movie, it’s tiny but… you can absolutely relate to these incredible young men. These were kids. I have a 21-year old daughter. And [these soldiers were] 21 and 22-years-olds when this things happened and I find that unimaginable. We’re used to war [heroes] being tough in their 30’s and 40’s but to contemplate these sort of things happened to children. It had to be shown but we had to keep it down to the barest minimum so that it was something you could watch. It’s interesting because when we show the movie to people– when we do tests of it– and you ask people about the violence, they say it was awful, it was unwatchable, and don’t you dare change a thing. Without it, the movie doesn’t do justice to what people went through so I haven’t counted it but it’s a matter of minutes.
ClotureClub: Did you have a lot of input on how Nicole Kidman played you?
Patti: No, I wouldn’t dream of telling Nicole how to play a role. [everyone laughs] She’s a consummate professional, isn’t she? I knew she had done a great deal of research into Patti, the person. My children, who I think are probably better to judge than I am, because I’m a bit close to what she’s done, were very skeptical to begin with because of her coloring and she’s from another country etc. but they’ve been very impressed to how well she’s caught their mom. I would say that’s a big endorsement. But yes it’s fabulous, isn’t it?
John: Did Eric ever tell you how he was able to forgive these people who did these horrendous things?
Patti: Not really and I think if you don’t mind, I’ll turn that question to Andy because you did experience an answer, didn’t you, when you asked him?
Andy: Well, we had to. The major task in deciding if this could be a film was to find a way of representing that journey. To begin with, when we asked Eric how he made that journey from revenge to forgiveness, he said ‘I don’t know but somehow the pain just went away’ and that’s not an easy thing to write, to be frank… we worked with a lady called Helen Bamba who runs the [foundation]. She’s devoted her life to people who suffered in many different ways. It gets a bit technical in a way because she had to explain to us what torture does to a human being and obviously the pain…She’s not a woman who messes about very much. She simply said, ‘Andy, it removes your humanity. Every thing that makes you a human being which is not just about pain. Which is about dignity. About justice. What you become on that torture table. If a woman you would want to love you had seen what you became, you know that she’ll never love you because you became less than human.
Everything that could be taken from you and so, that’s not an easy thing to discuss. You certainly don’t walk up to Eric and say this is what happened to you and now we’ve got to figure it out because he was incredibly generous but there’s a phrase that Patti has used that ‘if you push too far, the shutters would come down’ and you would realize that a. it’s none of your business and b. he can’t go there.
But he was the man who liked facts and details and to not understand something himself was, I think, quite painful for him. He knows that the pain just went away is not a satisfactory answer to what happened so what we tried to do in the film– having gotten to the point where he (Eric) had been challenged to go and meet this man [Mr. Nagase, one of the men responsible for the torture] was to try and dramatize the stages he went through so he arrives absolutely determined to kill him. We had no doubt in our minds his intention. An extraordinary thing for Patti to go through. He arrived wanting to do that and you find immediately that it’s not as easy to discover this man is an ordinary human being who you eventually discover has devoted much of his life to try to make some kind of atonement for what he’d done…
You walk back into this strange and this macabre history of what you went through and you were a part of and hopefully what we managed to put on the screen was a man wanting to hurt this man, finding this man has reasons that he shouldn’t and really not wanting to hear that. Almost closing his ears to it because he knows what he’s come for. We put him [Eric] in a position where he realizes he has power over this man. He could kill this man if he wanted to and just that reinstatement of control and power goes a very, very long way to taking away some of that hurt and then to discover that the man respects you. And these men above all had been put in a situation in Singapore where they had surrendered but actually they were sent to a completely lost cause so they actually were told that they had been surrendered and been surrendered to a race that had been conditioned to see surrender as the greatest disgrace and so if you start building up these injustices, you’re sent into a hopeless situation, you fight and then you’re told to stop and then you’re treated like animals because you surrendered which you didn’t and then you’re treated in that way and you try to bring some hope to [his fellow soldiers] by doing something brave– by building this radio– to bring news to give people a reason to stay alive out there and for your troubles, you’re interrogated and tortured. Your life is a wreck so to get to the point where somebody can actually say to you ‘you never surrendered’ is to restore such [power]. These men had never in any way been appreciated because when they came home, it was months and months and months after the war in Europe ended…
They had lived for all this time with a sort of sense that they ought to be ashamed of being part of this military disaster and that that was somebody else’s problem so you just pile on these layers of injustice and silence and so to find yourself in a situation where you’re understood… You’ve unpicked some of the damage and that’s a very complicated thing to do but that’s certainly what we tried to do in the third act of the film and I think Eric said to us at one point to the effect of ‘This is what it felt like,’ which is what we needed to be able to do to make sense of making the film at all because the book is a masterpiece. There would be no point going beyond that unless you could do something that tries to understand that big central question of how could it be possible.
Sorry. It has to be a long answer because there’s no way to simplify [this].
ClotureClub: [To Patti] I know whenever someone wrongs a friend or family member, though I know “wrong” is a weak word to use in terms of what happened to your husband, I almost take it more to heart than they do. That said, did you find it harder for you to forgive than Eric? Have you been able to forgive the people [that hurt Eric]?
Patti: Oh yes in both respects. It was very much harder because it seems such a waste of time. Eric was quite a brilliant man in many respects, and yet he was so damaged. He was held back by all those years and so I did feel very, very angry. But, there was a point where I had to realize that Eric, who was the one who was really involved, could genuinely forgive Mr. Nagase, then who was I not to also? Once I’d come to that conclusion, it was much easier and yes, we did all become friends. He had a wife also and I think she had quite a time with her husband as well.
John: So you heard about Mr. Nagase’s story through the book he wrote? Is that correct?
Patti: Yes. Just quickly, Eric was given a cutting from the English language Japan Times newspaper, which did a review of this book.
John: So Eric didn’t know it was coming at all?
Patti: No, not at all. And in the cutting, they’d included a picture of Mr. Nagase as he had been during the war and [Eric] recognized him immediately. Very soon after that, another friend sent him an English language copy of the book. It’s quite small called Crosses and Tigers and in the book is a description of Eric’s tortures and the effect that the writer thought it had had upon he personally but also further along, [Nagase] describes how he had been at one of the war graves British cemeteries in Thailand and had had a strange experience where he felt he’d been surrounded by golden lights and he felt like he was forgiven…. Eric read the book and the shutters came down. He didn’t make any remark about it whatsoever and a few days later when I had read it, I asked him if I might write to this terrible man and let him know that the subject of some of his writing was very much alive and kicking and had not yet forgiven him…. I never did anything without Eric’s permission because it it’s his life I was interfering with but he allowed me to make contact with Mr. Nagase and it led to a series of about five or six letters backwards and forwards in which Mr. Nagase expressed deep regret and eventually Eric felt that he would take over the correspondence himself so it took about two years before Eric decided that yes, he would go and meet this man and as we got to know, it wasn’t for friendly reasons…
John: What was your expectation when you wrote that first letter?
Patti: I didn’t expect him to write back. I just wanted to kiss his [butt] as far as I could kick it. I had very bad feelings myself but when he did write back, he wrote back very quickly and the terminology he used was so beautiful, you really had to take him seriously.
ClotureClub: Did you guys have a difficult time finding Japanese actors that wanted to be extras or soldiers?
Andy: It was quite extraordinary. When the casting directors were initially sending it out, they said that the result was a lot of these guys kind of went, ‘Oh my God, not another Japanese POW camp.’ Then, as soon as the name of the film was mentioned, they said, ‘That’s an entirely different question. We would be honored.’ The story obviously found that level of awareness in Japan, that they knew this was a very different and very special thing. They became our huge friends and advisers in making sure we got both sides of things right. They took it so seriously, even the guys that were playing the worst thugs and officers on that side. We had endless conversations [and] endless rewrites to get the tone of things correct. Hiroyuki, obviously, who plays older Nagase, is a wonderful, wonderful man. I worked very closely with him to get those words right and young Tanroh, who plays young Nagase. We were expecting that there may be some resistance but the book simply had already done our work for us.