If your filmic preference is a storyline about a man struggling to recover from trauma, look no further than Jonathan Teplitzky.
Two years ago, the Australian director released Burning Man — a powerful drama about a chef whose life disintegrates following the death of his partner from cancer. It stemmed from Teplitzky’s own experience of bereavement and bringing up his son alone.
His new film, The Railway Man, has a similar theme. It is based on the memoirs of Scottish railway enthusiast Eric Lomax, who was tortured and beaten close to death by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. Lomax was deeply affected by the trauma and was unable to confront his demons until the opportunity arose to meet one of his former captors years later.
In London for the premiere of the movie — which stars Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman — Teplitzky ponders the parallel. “I came to this project quite late in the day,” he explains. “It had already been in development for several years. But sometimes I think that films find you.This was such a compelling story. How you get through the bad times, the challenging times, tells you a lot about the human condition.”
On reading the script for the movie, he quickly assessed that Firth would be perfect for the part of Lomax. One assumes that securing the services of one of the world’s hottest stars would not be easy. Yet Firth came on board immediately. “As soon as he read it, he said that this was a character he had to play,” Teplitzky reveals.
The director goes on that “one of the great challenges of the film is that Lomax is a character who does not speak about his experiences. Like many of that generation, he found it very difficult to talk, so to move the film forward I needed an actor who could tell the story internally. Colin comes with such great sympathy that he can find the warmth in a character who outwardly seems cold. I absolutely love the work he did in A Single Man. I needed that same emotional depth.”
Firth suggested Kidman for the role of Lomax’s wife, Pattie, who in the book received only a couple of mentions, but played a huge part in helping Lomax to confront his demons. “Being Australian I’ve met Nicole a couple of times and I’ve always wanted to work with her,” Teplitzky says. “She said that she loved the part because it really showed the price you have to pay to love someone.”
Lomax died last year but both Teplitzky and Firth got to know him very well in the making of the film and Pattie, now 78, has been active in promoting it. Teplitzky remembers speaking to Lomax about how he found it tough to cope with civilian life because no one could understand what he had been through.
“After Eric was liberated, he spent some time in hospital before being put on the boat back home.
“He arrived back on the Thursday and on the following Monday he went back to his pre-war job at the Post Office. They placed the same file he had been working on the day before he left in front of him. He opened the file and saw they had updated his attendance record. He had been credited with one day of absence and that one day was the previous Friday. After four years of military service, two of which were as a prisoner of war, he was expected to carry on as if nothing had ever happened.”
Lomax was one of the thousands of PoWs who were made to work in inhumane conditions on the Burma railway, made famous in the film, Bridge Over the River Kwai. In post-war Britain there was little understanding of what had gone on and certainly no counselling for those who had endured years of abuse and depravity. “Eric had to deal with a psychological as well as physical torture and there’s a lot of humiliation that goes along with that.”
The story is told in flashback, although Teplitzky was adamant that he wanted the flashback sequences to appear as though in the present, a device he also used in the widely-praised Burning Man, for which the impetus was the director’s own life.
He was brought up in Sydney in a culturally Jewish but secular family. After five years backpacking in Europe, he signed up for a film course at Middlesex University. His first two movies were comedies. But five years after the death of his partner — giving him the responsibility of bringing up his (now 18-year-old) son alone — he decided to work towards a movie loosely based on his experiences.
“The main character, Tom, is out of control. This is the kind of behaviour that a lot of people wish they can indulge in and if you have suffered this kind of bereavement, you have a ‘get out of jail free card’.There are lots of bereavement films but I felt there was a better way to tell that story than people looking out of the window into the middle distance. I tried to portray that kind of anarchic behaviour, which was very much the way I was feeling at the time. I told it in a fragmented way. Fundamentally it’s a story about a fractured man so I fractured the story so that the form and the content would marry up more.”
Although there is a portrayal of grief in both films, Teplitzky feels there is a massive difference in the way that the main characters deal with it. “Tom in Burning Man almost has a form of Tourettes where he is vomiting out everything he thinks and feels all the time. Whereas in The Railway Man it’s about oppression. Eric didn’t have anything tangible to hold on to and no one understood what he had been through. So he just bottled it up. I can’t begin to imagine how tough that must have been.”