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 Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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