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The Railway Man - Patti Lomax interview (exclusive)

The Railway Man

Interview by Rob Carnevale

PATTI Lomax talks about how much The Railway Man means to her as a film that tells the story of her late husband, Eric Lomax’s life, and what it was like working with Nicole Kidman (who plays her in the film) and Colin Firth.

She also talks about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, what it’s like to live with as a carer and why she feels greater awareness is still needed. And she recalls her first meeting with Eric aboard a train.

Q. How much does a film like The Railway Man mean to you?
Patti Lomax: It means a lot because it’s a culmination of something that my husband [Eric Lomax] and the team of producers and directors and film stars and the whole caboodle of filmmaking went through… all of their hard work. And it turned out to be such good work too. I’m thrilled to bits with it, especially because it’s telling the truth. I think it’s amazing that a drama can be so specific to the true story because so many films and dramas based on books are so different from them. This film has really kept the essence of Eric’s story.

Q. Was that a concern going in, that his story might be changed too much for dramatic effect?
Patti Lomax: Initially, but on the other hand it was an English-Australian co-production and we knew that they were both very interested and had some cultural background to that period in the far east. So, gradually over time – and this taken 14 to 15 years to make – we built up a real trust and respect for the filmmakers and we knew they’d do the best they could.

Q. How was watching the film for you the first time? Did you find it emotional?
Patti Lomax: Well, initially, the first time I saw the film I was more interested in how my friends were actually tackling the film, so unfortunately the first time I was a little bit curious and the emotions didn’t really kick in. But the second time, once I’d got rid of all that, it was very emotional. Every now and again I would see my husband in Colin Firth and as he only died 12 months ago, it gives one a bit of a kick in the stomach and you have to realise that it’s not Eric up there. So, it’s a very emotional film for me.

Q. How important is it that a film like this is made, especially in terms of keeping Eric’s story – and those of his comrades – alive for future generations?
Patti Lomax: Well, it’s very important and I do hope that in some small way it will lead to a discussion about the effects of battle stress when it’s not treated upon soldiers – even modern day soldiers, and the men and women coming back from places like Afghanistan, who continue to be affected by this. They see and hear such terrible things, and they experience fear, and it does leave its mark. But it’s an area that is not given enough attention. If you see somebody with their limbs blown off, you can immediately see that they have a problem and need help and support to go about their daily lives. But with this [PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder], it’s a hidden thing. The symptoms usually start once they’ve been back for a little while. But battle stress does not go away and this is a film about that, and its result if left untreated – how it affects families and affects the life of the person who was the victim. It’s a terrible thing.

Q. When did you first become aware of Eric’s traumatic past?
Patti Lomax: As the film shows, on our honeymoon night. I knew there was something very wrong. But it took me a while to understand what exactly was causing the problem.

Q. Another thing that the film does very well is look at the toll it took on you. How did you keep on going when times got really dark, before you understood everything? And were there times when you thought about leaving? It’s notable and rare that a film shows both sides of the story…
Patti Lomax: Absolutely, and your comment goes wider than that – it applies to any carer who looks after a loved one, whether it be someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, for instance. It often starts gradually and there is a lot of confusion and anger – a lot of questions such as why is this happening? But you just get on with it, don’t you, otherwise you leave the situation or remove yourself from it. I was only human and there were times when I really did feel that I couldn’t stand it anymore. But when that happened I would go and have a good talk to myself and tell myself not to be such a wimp… and that usually got me back on the right course. It was very hurtful, stressful and tiring and I can’t really say how I did it. But I loved that man and he was worth looking after and helping. So, that was the whole objective.

Q. How much do you credit yourself with helping Eric find happiness?
Patti Lomax: I don’t particularly credit myself at all [laughs], but I am told I was very instrumental and I suppose, logically, yes I was. But I was just a loving wife doing what hundreds of other loving wives would probably do if their man was obviously in trouble. When Eric was normal, he was such a lovely person, so he was worth fighting for.

The Railway Man

Q. I gather the scene where you first meet Eric on the train is pretty faithful to what really took place?
Patti Lomax: Yes. It’s had to be tweaked a little to make it clear to the audience that Eric was a very inward looking person. The truth was I had a little book of maps and was following the railway line up the west coast of England to Scotland and Eric, who had a great interest in maps, noticed this person sitting in a corner with a book. We’ve laughed about it since, because it was the book of maps that attracted him and not the nearly beautiful woman holding them [laughs]. So, that’s really what started the conversation from him, but it was a small detail [in the film]. And he did then proceed to tell me all about the stations on the way up and we did meet more or less by chance a few days later. The only bit of real dramatisation [in the film] comes towards the end when it physically shows what Eric is actually thinking. But you can’t really show on film what a person is thinking.

Q. How was travelling out to Burma with him?
Patti Lomax: It was very stressful because I had no idea exactly what he intended to do…

Q. He hadn’t told you that his intention was to kill Takashi Nagase?
Patti Lomax: No, but he admitted it later. Although if you love somebody, you notice the signs that something is up and I recognised that perhaps things weren’t quite as they seemed [when we left]. The Japanese expected him to go out there and forgive him [Takashi] and they really thought the meeting would be about forgiveness. But really it was an excuse for Eric to go there and take revenge.

Q. So, what did you think when he then forgave him? And how did your opinion of Eric change?
Patti Lomax: It did take some time… it was only gradually that he became the person he should become. Eric believed that hating only hurt the person who did the hating – it didn’t hurt the one you hated. So, if you personally let go of that hate, then you can move forward, and he came to that point. It was a healing process.

Q. What did you think when it was announced that Nicole Kidman would be playing you in the film?
Patti Lomax: Oh wow, it’s every girls’ dream, even if she is 76! I thought that it was a great honour.

Q. When did you get to meet her?
Patti Lomax: It was about halfway through I would say. She did her research differently from Colin. We saw a lot of Colin and Jeremy. But she studied videos and listened to my voice and did her research in that way. And then about halfway through we went and met each other. And it was lovely and I think I now could say we’re friends.

The Railway Man

Q. You mentioned Jeremy Irvine, what did you think of the way he transformed himself physically to honour what Eric went through in Burma?
Patti Lomax: Isn’t he amazing? He’s a young man to watch for the future… a marvellous actor in the making. Both he and Colin [Firth] were very pleasant. They came to lunch and we all had a lovely time.

Q. How involved were you in the questions they had to ask? And how was it watching their relationship build and that trust develop?
Patti Lomax: Well, more of the focus was on Eric and although Eric was quite frail by that time, his mind was very active and very clear. And he also had a photographic memory. The other point was that the middle part of his book was written immediately after the war, so Colin and Jeremy did have that to refer to, which gave them a starting point. But they really got on very well. And Eric himself was not an easy person to get to know. But the trust and respect between the three of them that evolved was lovely to see.

Q. What’s been your favourite response to the film so far?
Patti Lomax: Well, there is a scene of Colin [Firth] standing overlooking Berwick upon Tweed estuary and although he doesn’t say anything it was the one scene that Eric was able to go and view before his death. He felt it was his own private premiere and he loved attention, so that seen is very special to me. As for watching it with an audience, it’s always interesting to see their reaction at the end of the film, which so far has been incredible.

Read our review of The Railway Man

Read our interview with producer and co-writer Andy Paterson