Sunday, December 29, 2013

Englishman Colin Firth on becoming a Scots hero

Monday 30th December 2013


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.

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.


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