Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth stood by the cutting at Kanchanaburi in Thailand — site of the infamous Death Railway — lost in a moment of reverence.
A lifetime ago, during World War Two, Allied soldiers — mainly British and Australian — cut through the malaria-infested jungle and rocks in order to construct a bridge across this ravine. Many died as a result of the fierce heat, harsh conditions and cruelty of their Japanese captors.
One of the those who survived was Eric Lomax, a Scottish-born second lieutenant. For years, he was haunted by what happened but wouldn’t speak of it — until he married Patti, who helped him fight the demons that gave him sleepless nights.
Nicole and Colin were in Thailand to portray the Lomaxes in later life (Jeremy Irvine plays the young soldier) in a film called The Railway Man, which opens here on New Year’s Day.
‘This place is devastating,’ Nicole told me, as we spoke between scenes, her words echoing off the sheer rock walls. ‘Patti Lomax told me about this. She said: “When you go there, you’ll feel the ghosts.” And you really do.’
More than a year later, when I mention that scene to Nicole, she is still affected by the experience. ‘It’s not an easy place to go to,’ she said.
‘What Eric and those other men went through was unimaginable. But they weren’t able to talk about it, and this code of silence was harmful to them, and it ruined relationships.
‘But Patti wasn’t put off by the obstacles. She wanted to get at the truth of what happened to her husband, and she wouldn’t be put off.
‘Patti’s one of those people who hang in there, which is why I wanted to tackle it, because I believe in hanging in there,’ she said pointedly.
‘You know, love can be very healing. That can really help heal trauma. You can’t do it for them. You offer it. You be there for them, and be their constant.’
You’ve been through that, I suggest, thinking of how the actress helped her husband Keith Urban break free from his addictions. ‘Yes, I’ve probably been through that — but do not make it about me!’ she chides. ‘But it’s what drew me to the role,’ she conceded.
I recall how, in Thailand, we walked closer to the cutting. Nicole was holding an umbrella to ward off the sun’s rays.
‘Can’t you feel it?’ she asked me, as we neared the ravine. ‘It’s such sacred ground. You don’t have to conjure up emotion for the scene, because it’s all around you.
‘Patti said the same thing. She stood there weeping for all the boys when she came with Eric.’
The Railway Man’s producer, Andy Paterson, told me he was drawn to making the film, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, by what Eric went through — and because of Patti.
‘I was interested in the woman who had the strength to find out what was wrong with this man, to fall in love with him and to do something about it.
‘Patti was initially reluctant to accept that what she’d been through with Eric could even vaguely be compared to the suffering of the guys who built the railway,’ Paterson told me.
Nicole shared that sensibility and said the film was really about Eric and what happened to him during and after the war. ‘It is important to be able to tell the story,’ she said.
‘And it might be of some help to the boys coming home from Afghanistan. Coming home is just as tough.’
Have you ever experienced a haunting?