Colin Firth is playing a real man suffering the real consequences of torture in The Railway Man, a responsibility the actor takes very seriously. The film opens in select cities Friday.
Firth portrays Eric Lomax, a British officer captured and tortured by the Japanese during WWII. Lomax's whole life was upended by the emotional aftermath of his experiences, and he was only able to put it all behind him by meeting and reconciling with his main tormentor.
"It's a monumental story and an amazing example of the difference that one human being can make," says Firth, who has tirelessly promoted the film since it first played here last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. The movie understates what actually happened to Lomax. "It's all in the book, " says Firth. "Countless horrors and examples of cruelty." The whole truth would have made the film unwatchable, although the movie does show a particularly appalling form of water-boarding Lomax was forced to endure. It gives the WWII story a contemporary connection.
"I would never have imagined, when Eric Lomax wrote his book in the mid-'90s, that we'd be returning to an era where countries that thought of themselves as civilized would participate in those forms of interrogation," says Firth.
"I don't even like to say forms of interrogation," he corrects himself. "That sounds euphemistic. I mean, when we'd go back to torture."
Firth says The Railway Man is important for what it reveals about the lasting effects of war. "We haven't seen many films about the long-term suffering of people who have experienced that kind of trauma —how it affects a relationship, how it affects your professional life, your social life, your children."
As an Oscar-winner for The King's Speech, Firth is not a newcomer to playing a real-life character. Of course, the fictional Mr. Darcy is likely Firth's best-known role, both in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice series that made him famous as well as the 'Mr. Darcy' of Bridget Jones' Diary. Helen Fielding's third instalment of Bridget Jones has now been published, although Firth has no idea when the movie might get made.
"Films go through all kinds of variables. But I know there's a will out there to get this one done."
Some argue that if enough time passes, the movie won't be viable, Firth says. "But I've always argued that the longer it goes on the more interesting it might be, because then it's less like a sequel and more like another story about a different generation. I thought it might be fun to come back to it when we've all deteriorated a bit."
Deteriorated? Firth is about to star in an action movie and he's in what's likely the best shape of his adult life. He's a lean, mean, fighting machine these days for his role in the film adaptation of Mark Millar’s The Secret Service, which co-stars Sir Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson. Matthew Vaughn (Wanted, X-Men: First Class) directs what Firth calls a 'thrilling' script, and he talks about working alongside Caine and a young actor he praises named Taron Egerton.
"It was wonderful to be on a set with Taron, who is 23 or 24, and Sir Michael, who is, I think, 79, and me in the middle at 53," he says. "Just a reflection on the fact that we have a profession where we work alongside each other. The young one might feel a bit of a rookie, and the older one might feel like a bit of an elder statesman, but we're all working on exactly the same film. And Michael Caine treats it that way. He sits and chats with the rest of us.
"I find it lovely, that kind of ensemble spirit."