Seeking redress for a Nazi theft
Woman in Gold (M) National release Poltergeist 3D (M) National release
Ah, Helen Mirren, you’ve done it again. As someone who has followed Mirren’s work since she burst on to the screen opposite James Mason in Michael Powell’s Dunk Island-filmed Age of Consent, I can’t think of a time when she has disappointed.
We will all have our favourite Mirren moments but my top-of-the-head ones are in Age of Consent, Pat O’Connor’s IRA drama Cal (1984), Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989), as long-suffering Sofya Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station (2009) and, toweringly, as DCI (later DS) Jane Tennison in the British television crime series Prime Suspect.
Age of Consent came out in 1969 (so perhaps I caught it a few years later), when Mirren was a 24-year-old Royal Shakespeare Company regular. She turns 70 in July and while it may be true that serious roles are few and far between for older female actors, it is not the case for her. She won an Oscar in 2006 as Elizabeth II in Stephen Frears’s The Queen, and I bet it won’t be her last.
is another true-life story. Mirren is Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who fled Vienna as the Nazis moved in. She lives in Los Angeles and we are in the early 1990s. When her sister dies, Maria finds a letter in her effects that determines her to try to recover five Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis stole from her family, now held in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery.
The most famous piece, known as Woman in Gold, is a portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele. “People see a portrait by one of Austria’s most famous painters,’’ Maria says. “I see a picture of my aunt.’’ Maybe so, but this painting is “the Mona Lisa of Austria” and the national government is not about to give it up.
Maria hires a callow young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds), because he is the son of a friend. He also happens to be the great-grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, a bloodline that becomes important to him, and to the story.
On one level, director Simon Curtis ( My Week With Marilyn) and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell deliver a tense courtroom drama that unfolds in Vienna and the US, where the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. If you don’t know the story (I didn’t) I recommend you resist the temptation to Google and savour the suspense. The courtroom scenes are strong, but this contemporary story also holds the film’s weakest moments. There are too many slow scenes where the legal proceedings are explained rather than shown.
Having said that, the chemistry between Mirren and Reynolds is wonderful. She is part fussy mother, wiping a speck from his suit before court, part woman of the world who appreciates a handsome man when she sees one. Reynolds builds on his excellent work in Atom Egoyan’s The Captive, producing another character who first seems.
There’s also much to enjoy in the supporting roles: Katie Holmes as Randy’s wife, Charles Dance as the stern (what else?) boss of Randy’s law firm, Daniel Bruhl as a crusading Viennese journalist, Jonathan Pryce and Elizabeth McGovern as senior US judges and Ben Miles (Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell on stage) as cosmetics mogul and art lover Ronald Lauder.
The second, more gripping, storyline is the historical one: the fate that befalls Maria and her prosperous family as Europe tilts towards madness in the late 30s. Tatiana Maslany is terrific as the young Maria, newly wed to handsome Fredrick Altmann (Max Irons, son of Jeremy and Sinead Cusack, and a model for good genes). She is devoted to her parents, but she knows, and they know, that flight is her only hope for a future.
There are several powerful scenes, but the one that lingers has the Nazis diligently doing an inventory of the family’s possessions. There’s a painting that will end up on Hitler’s wall, a necklace that will go into Mrs Hermann Goering’s jewellery box.
It’s a reminder that this existential threat to civilisation happened in the lifetimes of people still living. As Maria says, she doesn’t want the painting back because it’s worth $US100 million, but so that people will be know what happened, so that people will not forget.
In the flashbacks to Maria’s life in cultured Vienna, sumptuously shot by Australian cinematographer Ross Emery, there’s a terrible sense — because we know what is to come — of the slender threads that hold the world together. Passing the city’s Academy of Fine Arts, Randy muses in a touristy way: “It’s hard to believe Hitler once applied to be an art student here.’’ Maria’s response is immediate: “I wish they’d accepted him.’’
is more complicated than he My memory of Poltergeist was that it was one of the less scary of the possessed-house films popular in the late 70s and early 80s. This recollection was reconfirmed last Halloween when I watched it with a couple of eight-yearolds. I was far more unsettled by The Amityville Horror and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining . I suppose it depends on what frightens you; I’m more worried about mad humans than angry ghosts.
But if Poltergeist did make you jump back in 1982, then Gil Kenan’s remake, is sure to repeat the dose. It’s faithful to the original, with some updating: the haunted TV, for ex-
Woman in Gold, Poltergeist, ample, has a much bigger screen in 2015. And if clowns scare you, as they do a lot of people, make sure you go with someone you can grab on to.
For those who haven’t seen the original, here’s the set-up: a family — husband, wife, three kids — moves to an unfashionable housing estate after dad loses his job. Strange things start to happen — furniture moving by itself and the like — and it soon emerges the estate is built over a graveyard and the spirits of the dead are not happy about it.
Kenan establishes this with admirable economy: within minutes we see the youngest child, Madison (Kennedi Clements), pushing a stick into the grass — and watching in fascination as it is pushed back up. Maddy is captured by the poltergeists and removed to their non-human realm. The family can hear her sometimes, usually through the TV, but not see her. The action of the film is the attempt to rescue her.
Young actors Clements and Kyle Catlett, as the scared but brave older brother, are convincing, while Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt are easy to watch as their parents, especially in the ordinary scenes where they vent about the frustrations of a house full of kids. Jared Harris is fun, too, as a battle-scarred ghost whisperer.
This is a slick, fast-paced supernatural horror film that delivers its fair share of shocks — there’s a terrific scene involving a power drill — but shouldn’t leave you needing to sleep with the lights on.
Helen Mirren in scene from