Most people would be flattered to have themselves portrayed on film by Colin Firth but it cut little ice with Eric Lomax, otherwise known as The Railway Man.
The film is based on his book recounting his horrific experience in a Japanese prison of war camp and the years of post-traumatic stress which followed before he was able to achieve reconciliation in a remarkable way. As a young man he is played on screen by Jeremy Irvine and in later life by The King’s Speech star opposite Nicole Kidman as his wife, Patti.
According to the film’s writer and producer, Andy Paterson: “Patti will tell you when Eric was first told Colin Firth was going to play the role he had no idea who he was. It made more of a splash in Berwick than with Eric.
“Then Colin was on the front page of the Telegraph a few week later and he said, ‘I think we may have someone quite important in our film’.”
When eventually the actor and the war veteran met in his home town of Berwick upon Tweed they hit it off immediately. “Colin has said it would not have been necessary to like him but he did enormously and it raised the stakes for him considerably,” says Paterson, “partly because he’s a storyteller and I speak from experience of people who tell their war stories over and over again and he wasn’t. he had written the book and didn’t particularly want to come back to it.”
Bringing the best-selling book to the screen was to take 14 years.
“We knew from the start it was going to be tough to eclipse the book which was so beautifully written and captured the voice of a man who told such a shocking and epic story,” explains the producer. “You didn’t want to do it unless you felt you could do justice to the scale of it which meant it would be expensive to make and difficult to raise the money, And to find a cinematic way to go beyond what was in the book.”
He and co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce decided tto approach it as a love story and foreground the role of Patti – whom Eric met and married in the early 1980s – and how she helped him confront his demons. It gets very little coverage in the book, but says Paterson, “Patti is a remarkable woman who refused to believe her role could in any way be in comparison with what those young men went through which we completely understood but at the same time she represents the millions of families who have to cope with the wreckage of war. These men come back and they are in a mess, so we wanted to establish that story and make them feel comfortable with it and all the while we were working with Patty and Eric in order to make sense of it.”
Sadly Eric Lomax died shortly before the film was completed but Patti is favourably impressed. “I think she believes it captures him,” observes Paterson. She has been supporting its release and at the Toronto Festival received a standing ovation. “She deserves it, she spent many years of fighting for him and then looking after him.”