NEW YORK — Shortly before wrapping up filming for “The Railway Man,” a World War Two drama about a former British Army officer and victim of torture, actor Colin Firth dreamt he was drawing a map of a railway but was bluffing and didn’t know how to do it.
The English Oscar-winner saw the dream as a metaphor for the film, based on a true story and best-selling autobiography, and the responsibility he felt in portraying a man who had suffered in silence for decades before finding the power of forgiveness.
“I was supposed to know and I didn’t know. And in the dream there were old men needing me to get it right, saying you’ve got to join it up. You’ve got to say where it goes,” the actor said in an interview ahead of the film’s US release on Friday.
Firth, 53, plays Eric Lomax, a man with a passion for trains and railway timetables who meets his wife on a train decades after he had been tortured as a prisoner of war during the building of the Thailand-Burma Railway, or what became known as the “Death Railway.”
The railway, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its attack on the British colony of Burma, used forced labor, including Asian civilians and Allied prisoners of war, many thousands of whom died of beatings, disease, starvation and exhaustion.
Like many men of his generation Lomax didn’t talk about the war but relived his experiences in nightmares, until he was coaxed into confronting his demons and tormentor.
Firth won a best actor Oscar in 2011 for “The King’s Speech,” about King George VI’s battle to overcome a speech impediment, and was no stranger to playing silent, brooding types.
But Lomax’s harrowing story of the suffering of thousands of prisoners of war, the torture inflicted by their captors and their inner torment was different.
“It did reflect how it felt because nothing equivalent to this had ever happened to me,” Firth said about the dream.
“Every so often you’re called to interpret a story which is very, very precious and that was the case with this. It became personal,” he added.
Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky (“Burning Man” and “Better than Sex”) thought Firth was perfect for the part and that it was a role and a character the actor couldn’t say no to.
Nicole Kidman, the 2003 best actress Oscar winner for “The Hours,” plays his wife Patti Lomax, and Jeremy Irvine, who made his feature film debut in “War Horse,” is the young Lomax, whose story is told in flashbacks.
Sweden’s Stellan Skarsgaard (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays Lomax’s friend Finlay. Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Wolverine”) rounds out the cast as the Japanese interpreter and tormentor Takashi Nagase, whom Lomax confronts decades later and amazingly forgives and befriends.
“It reminds us of what we are capable of as human beings, the very best and the very worst,” said Teplitzky.
The film was shot in Australia, Thailand and Scotland, where Firth and Kidman met Lomax and his wife. Lomax died in 2012, at the age of 93, while the film was being edited.
Reading the book and meeting Lomax were invaluable for Firth because his role is so silent and the feelings are internalized.
“I had to inhabit imaginary memories,” he said. “Being equipped with so little, it meant a lot to be equipped with that.”
Firth was also surprised by the reaction to the film, which has already opened in Australia and Britain, and what it has unearthed. He said people have contacted him and Patti Lomax saying their father, grandfather or uncle had been there too during the war and hadn’t spoken about it until now.
“Sometimes you are an instrument for a story that really needs to be told properly and I think Eric was conscious of the fact that it wasn’t just his precious book, that he was actually speaking for all the guys that didn’t speak out,” Firth said.