Film Helen Mirren shines in Woman in Gold
Director Simon Curtis expects Woman in Gold to resonate widely because of the contemporary significance of its themes, as he tells
The repatriation of art is a long-term issue although its resonance is stronger right now as Middle Eastern antiquities are being looted or destroyed by rampaging jihadis. Even the National Gallery of Australia has been embroiled in its own looting scandal, recently handing back to India a Dancing Shiva, allegedly stolen from a temple, and bought by the NGA on the international art market from a disreputable New York dealer.
Nothing quite approaches the mass cultural destruction and larceny during World War II, when much of Europe’s great art was stolen or misappropriated.
One of the greatest such artworks was Gustav Klimt’s striking gold-leaf Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, or Woman in Gold, and the battle over it is dramatised in Simon Curtis’s new feature film Woman in Gold. For those unfamiliar with the story, we should issue a spoiler alert, as the following reveals details of the film’s plot.
Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, the Austrian migrant who fights the government of her former homeland, from which she fled the Nazis, with the assistance of a dogged but inexperienced American lawyer Randy Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), for the return to her family of the painting of her aunt Adele.
Curtis is keen, rightly, to underline that Woman in Gold, is a bigger story than a mere legal battle although he is pleased the film is now caught up in, or representative of, ongoing art repatriation battles.
“I’m happy for that,” he says, noting Schoenberg mentioned while they were in Washington only a few weeks ago how the human cost of World War II had been so immense that no one bothered about art and possession.
“It was all about people,” he says. “But as the years have gone on, it’s become a bigger issue.
“There’s that line that Ron Lauder says in the film, that the artworks are the last hostages of the second world war. That’s quite a powerful idea, isn’t it?”
It elevates the film beyond a mere entertainment, albeit a successful one, to something that could be, in some way, influential.
“Yes, I’m proud because a lot of our culture isn’t about anything any more and I think this film is about something,” Curtis says.
“And it’s the story of the century and the story that says let’s not forget some of the things that happened relatively recently.”
He argues this century is already much more troubled than we thought it would be and in Europe in particular, anti-Semitism has raised its “ugly head again”.
“And I’m a bit angry at some of the journalists who’ve written about the film because they haven’t taken that on board at all,” he says of the film’s broader ambition.
“It is a film about something. Yes, first and foremost it is an entertainment and I hope people find it amusing and emotional and gripping, but it also makes you think, and I think people like to be made to think. And so many films don’t make you think about anything, they’re designed to not make you think.’’
Already Woman in Gold has resonated at the box office, performing extremely well in North America, where it is still in the top 10 in its eighth week. Its $US29 million ($36.5m) is only a touch behind the take for The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Curtis, who most recently directed another historical vignette, My Week with Marilyn, notes the film has obviously resonated among Jewish communities but has broader appeal beyond victims of Nazi persecution and their descendants.
“We’re all the product of some random choices parents and grandparents [made] to get us where we are,” he says. “And obviously it’s not just a Jewish story, people leaving one world to reinvent themselves in another.”
Woman in Gold also has the benefit of a boxoffice star, Mirren, in the lead.
I suggest, a bit clumsily, that Curtis got lucky casting someone who could not only carry the role but bring people into the cinema. “I would say I did get lucky!” he laughs. He knew Mirren from his time in theatre, when as a teenager he worked as her assistant, although he admits “that would not get me Helen Mirren unless she liked the part and the script”.
Filming in London helped, particularly in surrounding Mirren with actors of the stature of Charles Dance, Frances Fisher, Daniel Bruhl, Elizabeth McGovern, Tom Schilling and Moritz Bleibtreu.
“But Helen is very choosy and this part and this story meant something to her personally, or I know it did.”
The story is essentially two films, cutting between the modern-day legal and political battles to see the painting returned, and revisiting the period — quite effectively, given it is not a full-blown period piece — in which the painting was commissioned, hung and ultimately stolen Woman in Gold, by the invading Germans. Curtis did not worry that the story across two eras would become too big or broad to wrangle, although he notes that the day Schoenberg presented him and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell with 2000 pages of legal documents, “it was definitely pause for thought”.
“But there were so many different stories one could tell out of this,” he adds. “Klimt and Adele Bloch Bauer could be the story but, for us, it was always the story of Maria, Helen Mirren’s character, recruiting Randy to go on this journey to make amends for the past. And we would flash back to the past as Maria reawakened those memories.”
Curtis recalls being asked about his fears for the editing of the past with the present but says he had no worries because the shoot was so enjoyable. Sure, he and cinematographer Ross Emery shot images from the past they had no idea where they would fit in the present, but “that’s the stuff of the editing room”.
Curtis is generous in his praise of the Australian cinematographer Emery, who was recommended to him by producer Harvey Weinstein after he worked with Phillip Noyce on The Giver. Unprompted by any parochialism from this Australian interviewer, Curtis says Emery, who worked as second unit director of photography on The Matrix trilogy, Valkyrie and Knowing before stepping up to cinematographer on Underworld: Rise of the Lycans and The Wolverine, among others, was “a phenomenal partner” who made the period pieces work.
Maria Altmann died as Curtis began to adapt the film after watching a documentary on the subject; neither he nor Mirren met her, although her family was “very supportive of the film” and visited the set. Schoenberg’s imprimatur and encouragement also proved valuable.
Further spoiler alert: the family and their lawyer must be pinching themselves. The ultimate decision in the case still seems rather fantastical. Curtis agrees to a point. He notes a “senior person” in Vienna told him the country, or at least some of it, was very pleased the painting was in New York, “because it was proclaiming Austrian talent to the world.”
“I agree but in this one my personal theory is this is a painting that Maria’s uncle commissioned Klimt to paint of her aunt and it was hung on the family wall,” he says. “That’s a pretty potent emotional connection, isn’t it?”
May 23-24, 2015
Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in
left; Maria Altmann next to the Klimt painting of her aunt Adele BlochBauer, who is played in the film by Antje Traue, below