Speaking on the telephone with Colin Firth, it’s hard not to think of his Oscar-winning turn as the beleaguered King George VI opposite Geoffrey Rush in 2010’s “The King’s Speech.” Or, for that matter, his romantic and oh-so-English performances as Mr. Darcy in 1995’s “Pride and Prejudice” and as Mark Darcy, Renee Zellweger’s beau, in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which still sets women’s hearts aflutter.
But the 53-year-old thespian – whose many credits also include “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Love, Actually” and “A Single Man,” has of late undertaken perhaps his most difficult, grueling role ever: Firth is the eponymous star of “The Railway Man,” based on Eric Lomax’s 1996 memoir of his incarceration and torture as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, now in theaters. The film also details the British soldier’s searing nightmares and flashbacks for decades after the war, which cease only when he meets and reconciles with his former torturer.
Here are excerpts from my interview with Firth, who spoke effusively and passionately about his meetings with Lomax, the Holocaust survivor who most helped him overcome his demons, and why Japanese atrocities during World War II remain far less known than those of the Third Reich.
Q: What first drew you to this film?
A: I just thought that it had taken so much for Eric to tell his story that it was not an easy thing to walk away from. And this film wasn’t just dealing with the horrors of his experience in 1942; it’s about how that experience also affects his intimate relationships, his marriage, how it calculates through to the people that are close to him because those people are casualties, too.
Q: Lomax eventually forgives his tormentor. Do you think you could forgive such a thing?
A: I have absolutely no idea. But I don’t think the film is a morality tale; it’s not taking a position of saying, "This is what you’re supposed to do." The great religions of the world advocate love over hate, but when you’re actually asking a person to do it in reality, it’s quite a different matter. I don’t think that any of us are in a position to judge another person’s choices. I don’t think Eric is doing that, and he also did not claim to have forgiven everyone concerned – he didn’t say he had forgiven the Japanese Army, or the other camp officer who was present at his torture. He had found a release through one man, who had been the object of his hatred for 50 years. So there was a catharsis in that. He’s only given us the example of his own experiences, although I do think there’s some optimism to be taken from the fact that this particular individual went through those steps.
Q: How did you approach those scenes in which Lomax suffers terrible nightmares and flashbacks of his torture?
A: As an actor, it was [emotionally] difficult. It’s terribly exposing and I think one of the inhumanities that were inflicted on Eric was that being tortured is exposing; it’s degrading; you are exposed at your most desperate. He was screaming for his mother when he was being tortured and those were the things that came up again when he screamed at night; he was going through that over and over again. There’s a grotesque intimacy about it, and people who would visit the Lomax [family] overnight would have to stay in hotels because they were conscious of the fact that they would be awakened by Eric’s screams.
Q: Helen Bamber, a Holocaust survivor and the founder of the Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture, was the therapist who was most able to help Lomax. Did you meet with her as part of your preparation for the film?
A: Eric’s wife, Patti [played in the film by Nicole Kidman], talked a lot about her and I went to meet Helen and got to know her very, very well. She was a young girl during the war and went to the camps during the very early stages – and that’s what inspired her to help people. It was Patti who led Eric to Helen and Patti had immense gratitude for Helen; she said Eric’s [recovery] wouldn’t have happened without Helen.
And it was very important in Helen’s approach that the family was involved in his therapy; it was crucial for this man who had bottled it all up, to have it come out, to be discussed with the people who were closest to him. Because with isolation the torture continues inside you and to somehow air that and to have the people you love have some kind of access to it was obviously very, very helpful.
But Helen did not have facile prescriptions for this; she was very hesitant to talk about forgiveness; she didn’t think there was any shortcut to that, and she didn’t offer little bromides. She knew that this was a process that was difficult to the point of impossible, and she was as tough as she was compassionate.
She also gave me some incredibly unsentimental insights as far as prisoners as war are concerned; one of the things that I brought to the film was a quote from Helen, which is when the Stellan Skarsgard character, [another former POW], says “We’re not living; we’re miming in the choir.” That was Helen’s phrase for this approximation of normality that people who are so traumatized will assume. And they will carry it on for years and years, with perhaps people who don’t know them well never guessing that they’re not quite experiencing the world in the same way as people who haven’t suffered so.
Helen was also very much concerned with how the torture plays out in the aftermath, in one’s problems of intimacy, and she talked about problems of sex as well. That intimate exposure and degradation of being a torture victim is bound to have an effect on your relationship to intimacy; Helen said that it was not uncommon for therefore romantic intimacy to be compromised and actually made it almost impossible. You couldn’t bear to be emotionally exposed enough to submit to someone who is close to you.
Q: When you met with Lomax, what did he tell you his intentions were when he first went to meet with his torturer, the Japanese officer Takashi Nagase?
A: I was just fudging it, because it’s not every day you’re asking someone about their plans for murder, you know, over lunch. I said, “So, um, were people around you, including people like Helen Bamber, aware of your intention to um, um, you know" – I was being very British –and he just said, “I intended to kill him.” But it was so matter-of-fact, as if I’d been asking him if he took sugar in his tea. He said, “Oh, yes, I knew I was going to do it and I knew exactly how I was going to do it – I was going to garrote him.”
Q: We’ve had so many books, films and plays over the years about the Nazi Holocaust; why do the Japanese atrocities remain so much less known when we talk about the history of World War II?
A: [Sighs]. I feel I’m out of my depth in discussing this, but my only interpretation is that history is a very strange commodity, and you choose your narrative. And the fall of Singapore [which led to Eric’s capture by the Japanese] isn’t something that flatters our British national history. Churchill described the fall of Singapore as the greatest military disaster ever to befall the British Empire. That’s not the stuff of a gung-ho adventure story; it was mass capitulation. So just from a dispassionate view of military history, that’s not a glorious tale to tell.
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