Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky’s last film, Burning Man, starring Matthew Goode and Bojana Novakovic, was a visceral, non-linear exploration of the heartache of a man coming to terms with the death of his partner. Teplitzky, who also penned the script, drew on his personal experience of losing his wife to breast cancer 10 years prior.
For his latest film, The Railway Man, he tackles the true-life experiences of World War II POW Eric Lomax. Adapted from Lomax’ memoir of the same name by 24 Hour Party People’s Frank Cottrell Boyce and Burning Man producer Andy Patterson, it recounts the events following the allies’ surrender of Singapore to Japanese troops in 1942.
Forced to work under gruelling conditions on the infamous ‘Death Railway’ on the River Kwai, Lomax and his comrades secretly constructed a radio receiver to get news of the war effort back home. Taking sole blame when they were discovered, he underwent brutal torture at the hands of his Japanese captors.
It’s a succinct and powerful story about the very best and worst of human nature.
Colin Firth stars as an older Lomax struggling to come to terms with what he endured, while Nicole Kidman plays his devoted wife, Patti, whose first glimpse of the nightmares that haunt him comes on their wedding night, after a whirlwind romance in the film’s opening scenes that lulls you into a false sense of security.
Jeremy Irvine depicts the younger Lomax during flashbacks, with Tanroh Ishida as his youthful torturer Nagase and The Wolverine’s Hiroyuki Sanada as the older man trying to atone for his war crimes.
Debuting to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, in many ways The Railway Man is a much bigger film, but the emotional heart is comparable to Burning Man, according to Teplitzky. “It has a bit more scale, but it’s actually quite a personal and intimate tale, a story between Patti and Eric, Eric and Nagase.”
Impressed by Firth and Kidman’s ability to deliver great weight through sparse dialogue. “It was very difficult for Colin, because he’s playing a guy who doesn’t talk. We had to work hard on what his interior life was like. A lot of Nicole’s character is expressed through internal life too, which she’s incredibly strong at.”
Talking with Eric, who sadly died before the film was completed, and Patti, Teplitzky was particularly surprised by the assumption that life for Eric would casually return to normal. “He arrived back in England on a Thursday and was back working his same job at the post office on Monday. The expectation was that you just slipped back in and got on with it.”
On the festival circuit, Patti endured bittersweet emotions. “Every time she talks about the film, it reminds her that Eric’s not there, but at the same time she’s so thrilled it’s honouring his life, and communicating important things, not just about how hard it was for those men who came back from the war, but also the devastating effect on those who cared for them as well.”
Filming over two months in Scotland, Thailand and Queensland to a tight budget, Teplitzky says it was important to let the inherent drama unfold. “It’s a succinct and powerful story about the very best and worst of human nature. If this was fiction, you’d think at times it was too melodramatic, but the thing is, that’s what really happened. It’s a big story.”
The Railway Man opens nationally on on December 26, 2013.
Stephen A. Russell is a Melbourne based freelance writer.