Englishman Colin Firth on becoming a Scots hero

Oscar clout has enabled Colin Firth to make his pet project, a harrowing testament to human cruelty that is also a tribute to a remarkable Scot

Oscar clout has enabled Colin Firth to make his pet project, a harrowing testament to human cruelty that is also a tribute to a remarkable Scot

Can an Oscar change your life? Or just hang a burden of expectation around the neck that can induce paralysis? Renée Zellweger, Halle Berry and Adrien Brody never made it back to the A-list after their wins. Hilary Swank has two awards, which is also the number of films most people can name that star Hilary Swank.

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Two years ago, when Colin Firth held the statuette in both hands for The King’s Speech, he fretted, “I have a feeling my career has just peaked,” then promised the academy a night of celebratory bad dancing. It took a little longer for the film industry to respond: “One day I had three bad scripts on my desk,” he says, “the next day I had 300.”

Firth’s Oscar has had a nomadic existence since 2011, travelling around the houses of friends and family, or off to his sons’ school for show and tell sessions, where anyone can pose with it. It’s not yet been used as a door stop, but “it definitely opens doors. There are two ways of dealing with such an immense piece of good fortune. One is to feel pressure and say you have to do everything right – and you won’t. Or you can say ‘I’ve got that in the bag, I can do what I want,’ and if you want to reach somebody to get the collaboration on something, then they’ll talk to you.”

The Railway Man is the first beneficiary of Firth’s new clout. Based on Eric Lomax’s memoir of being forced to work on the Burma-Thailand train line known as the Railway of Death, it is a war drama wrapped in a love story. Firth has wanted to make this film for years, but the money only arrived when he received his golden gong.

Firth films usually centre on earnest men who are a little inhibited and awkward about revealing passion. Eric Lomax was different. For a start, he was always openly enthusiastic about his love for trains. The infatuation began when Lomax was growing up in Edinburgh towards the end of the golden age of steam. He loved their precision, their romance and their craft, but later the enthusiasm became bitterly ironic when he was conscripted to help build the jungle railway made famous in the film The Bridge On The River Kwai.

As a signals officer in Singapore, Lomax was just 23 when the Japanese overran that city and made him a prisoner of war. Lomax survived, but only just. Malnutrition, disease, heat and cruelty killed more than 100,000 Asian labourers and some 16,000 British, Australian, Dutch and Americans who hacked out tracks in soil, but Lomax was subjected to especially shocking punishment when the Japanese discovered he had helped build a basic radio and had drawn a detailed map of the terrain.

Each day he was forced to stand to attention in the blazing sun with four other officers. When night came, they were each beaten systematically. One particular voice lodged like shrapnel in his mind. Nagase Takashi translated back and forth during the beatings and torture, and advised him to confess before execution. “He was centre-stage in my memories,” Lomax wrote in his book. “My private obsession. He stood for all the worst horrors.” The trauma continued to haunt him for decades, costing him his first marriage, and casting a long shadow over his second.

As the sun sets on a midwinter Sunday afternoon, mine is the last of a small handful of interviews with Firth. I can’t help but notice that the Today programme just beforehand sent three women; one to ask the questions, and two apparently to watch Firth, who is looking very sharp with his Harry Palmer glasses, a beautifully cut suit, and the sort of good hair you see adorning the heroes on the covers of Barbara Cartland novels.

Our seating arrangement is all business – a couple of high-backed chairs and a table, ignoring the chummy sofa by the hotel window because Firth doesn’t get too comfortable in interviews. “It’s not the saltmines”, he allows, but he’s not a big fan of the process and its scrutiny. Yet he met Lomax many times at his home in Berwick-upon-Tweed to discuss the book, the film and, inevitably, to draw out and relive some of Lomax’s traumas. A bit like being a journalist then? Firth flinches slightly at the comparison. “I wasn’t there to write about him, I was there to portray him,” he says. “I wasn’t there just to pry into the painful things, but to see who he was, how he processes things. It’s about trying to inhabit his perspective.”

His first meeting with Lomax and his wife Patti was tentative. “I’d been told not to expect a man who was old in his mind, but when you see a frail man in his 90s, you fall into that trap of speaking a bit louder at first. Then I realised this man was as present as anybody at any age. He was formidably articulate, very sharp and very witty.”

It was difficult for Lomax to meet new people by this point, but he took a liking to Firth, who has a droll wit and a gently persistent curiosity. However, the former PoW had no idea that this polite actor was also one of Britain’s biggest stars until he saw a picture of Firth on the front page of a newspaper. “We must’ve gotten someone famous!” he said to his wife Patti, who gets an equally glam doppelganger, as she’s portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the movie.

Some topics remained too painful to revisit, “but there were other things, not the sort of things you would normally discuss over lunch, which he was quite matter-of-fact about”. Tact and politesse meant Firth waited until dessert before asking Lomax if he had really intended to murder Takashi.

“You don’t normally have a conversation about somebody’s plans to kill somebody, so I wasn’t sure of the protocol,” admits Firth. “So I was fumbling for the right words to ask about his intentions, when he looked up from his rhubarb and custard and said ‘you mean killing him?’ It was a simple, matter-of-fact inflection. ‘I knew exactly how I was going to do it,’ he said, and the fact there was so little drama in the way he said this, made it impossible for me to doubt his seriousness.”

Remarkably, Lomax did find and meet Takashi. They were both in their 70s, and even more remarkably, Lomax changed his mind, and instead of revenge, he accepted reconciliation and forgiveness. They became best friends, according to Firth. “One of the things that Eric was very wry about was that they visited the Nagasaki museum together, and started talking about the moment they heard about the atomic bomb being dropped. Eric had heard about it within a few days. This astonished Nagase, who didn’t find out for two or three weeks. He said: ‘You were in Changi jail, how did you hear about it?’ And Eric said: ‘Because we built another radio!’”

The Railway Man was filmed on location in Australia, Thailand, Berwick-on-Tweed and of course Scotland. Kidman and Firth had their screen wedding at St Monans in Fife, Firth strolls past Gilmerton House, and a major train scene was staged in Perth, where to his amusement the paparazzi surrounding the set were greatly outnumbered by trainspotters, determined to catch a glimpse of their 1980s train.

For one day, the film was also shot at the bottom of Lomax’s street, but by then the former PoW was too delicate to move much. Firth and Kidman came to lunch at his house instead, but by the end of the meal, Lomax was so energised that he agreed to have his wheelchair carried to the railway viaduct where Firth was filming that afternoon. “He was quite interested in what we were doing,” recalls Firth, drily. “But even more interested in the gauge of the track.”

Just as the film neared completion, Lomax died at home at the age of 93. His wife Patti loves the film but believes it was a blessing her husband didn’t have to watch the biopic. “He would have thought it so convincing, it would have taken him right back,” she said after an early screening. “And he didn’t want that – he was frightened of that.”

Firth is well aware of the importance of veracity in retelling the brutal story; anything less could have become another act of violence. Yet for Scottish audiences, it is noticeable that Lomax’s accent has been omitted. This turns out to have been a point of some agonising for the production. At a press conference with Nicole Kidman, Firth was still undecided how to enunciate their early scenes, such as the moment where he woos her on a train journey with the line: “If you think Warrington’s exciting, wait till we get to Preston.”

Firth and War Horse actor Jeremy Irvine play the older and younger versions of Lomax respectively, and rehearsed together so their mannerisms and intonations overlapped. They also consulted a dialect coach before realising that “neither of us are Scottish by birth or upbringing, and we would have both had to make it so seamlessly right”.

Irvine tells me later, “I was totally up for it,” so it seems that it was Firth who took the decision to invest time spent on accent synergy elsewhere. “This film is about a lot more than where Eric is from,” asserts Firth. “The stakes were too high to risk a situation where one of us nailed it and the other didn’t. Or we both could sound right, but not like each other. I just thought there was an awful lot to dig for here.” So the accents ended up more Firth than Forth, although Irvine does a terrific job of mimicking the older actor’s tics and vocals style. “He’s a better me than me,” deadpans Firth.

Aside from accents, some minor date juggles and a character elision, The Railway Man is scrupulously faithful to Lomax and his bestselling book. At a private London screening, a woman introduces herself to the cast as Charmaine Lomax, Eric’s daughter from his first marriage. This had been a hard film to watch, she told them, because her father was a private man who hadn’t shared his wartime experiences with his family. Yet there had been an odd consolation about seeing him portrayed on screen before he was broken by imprisonment, and as an older man struggling towards reconciliation. Irvine and Firth are visibly moved by this.

Next year will be a busy one for Firth. The reason we meet on a Sunday afternoon, and the reason Firth is currently thin to the point of gauntness, is because he’s shooting an action picture called The Secret Service, where he plays a James Bond-style spy who has to take on his nephew as a trainee. After the New Year, he looks forward to expanding again. Then, besides The Railway Man, there’s Devil’s Knot, a new Atom Egoyan movie in which Firth plays a special investigator looking into the murder case of three teens known as the West Memphis Three, plus a Woody Allen film “that I can’t really discuss”, and voicework for a children’s film as Paddington, the marmalade sandwich-loving bear. Will he be attempting a Peruvian accent? He shoots me a look of patient exasperation, and later diffidently admits he has Scottish ancestry on both sides of his family, but doesn’t want to make it sound as if he’s jumping on a Celtic bandwagon. “I’ve learned to be a bit muted on that because Scottish people tend to say ‘Oh you English people, you always claim Scottish descent’.” Not really, I say. It’s more likely we’d welcome the chance to claim any future Oscars as a home win. Firth cheers up. “Well, as long as I’m welcome, I’ll put my hand up.”

Actually, although he sounds very RP now, Firth’s nickname as a teenager was The Yank, following a year in St Louis, Missouri, where he acquired an American accent and mannerisms. This was one of several accents Firth acquired and discarded, having moved schools throughout his childhood, adopting whichever voice made life easiest. “You know how you meet English expats, and they’re more English than any of the people who stayed at home? Well, that’s probably the syndrome with me. It’s an acting stunt I’ve brought on to myself over the years, and now I’ve found myself representing a certain type of Englishman that possibly doesn’t even exist any more,” he says, with a certain Eeyorish relish.

Alas for Firth, talk of mythic Englishmen reminds me of one particular iconic Georgian loveboat on his CV, especially since Pride And Prejudice’s writer Andrew Davies has been gossiping that BBC arts executive Alan Yentob had to be convinced that Firth was sufficiently sexy, and complaining that in his original script, Darcy’s pond dive was supposed to be nude.

“Well it was BBC primetime, so that was never going to happen,” says Firth. “We looked at the options, and Y-fronts were not a very good alternative since they didn’t wear them back then. So in the end, it was decided to just throw Darcy in fully clothed.”

And, he concedes, Alan Yentob might have had a point, “because absolutely nobody on the set felt that anything particularly sexy was happening that day”.

The Railway Man (15) is on general release from 10 January