Originally published at GetOut, March 26, 2015
Woman In Gold
When it came to Maria Altmann’s story, there was very little finessing. It didn’t need it for it was incredible on its own without Hollywood embellishments. “Woman In Gold” is about Maria’s struggle for restitution and justice; the incredible tenacity of her lawyer; and the beautiful relationship between them. Like the Viennese Waltz, the film is beautifully balanced between heart-rending grief and humiliation, and joy and triumph. It glides with ease between the past and modern day making the film inviting and touching.
Directed by British filmmaker Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”), “Woman In Gold” reaffirms his filmmaking genius when it comes to directing a true-life story. GetOut had the pleasure of speaking with Curtis about his film at the Ritz Carlton in Phoenix.
“Klimt was the great Austrian painter; this painting was one of his most famous — but it was also a painting that Maria’s uncle commissioned Klimt to paint of her aunt. And (it) hung on the family wall.” Curtis explained.
The core of the film centers around Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” otherwise known as the “Woman in Gold.” Viewed in many ways as the “Mona Lisa of Austria,” it was infinitely dear to many Austrians. But for Maria, the painting had far more sentimental value.
During the Nazi take over wealthy Jewish families like Maria’s were stripped of their possessions. It was not until the late 1990s when Maria heard about the Austrian restitution program. It is then that she begins looking into what can be done to have her aunt’s portrait returned. And this is also when she meets Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), son of a family friend and a young lawyer.
The story is as much about their unlikely friendship as it is about the Klimt painting.
The film is tenderly moving, illustrating the facts without sensationalizing them.
Curtis explained that he had actually been working on “Woman In Gold” for sometime, and laughingly said that while he had a spent a week with Marilyn, he and spent years with Maria.
It was on an episode of BBC’s Imagine documentary series that he first heard about Maria’s story. It touched him deeply.
“I’m from a Jewish family in London, and women like Maria are very familiar to me. There was something very touching about this campaign she waged towards the end of her life.”
It was also the way Maria’s story brought together World War II and contemporary America that sparked his interest.
“To me, the painting and Maria Altmann seemed to be emblematic of the entire 20th century, both originating in Vienna in its golden age at the beginning of the century and both ending in the United States at the end of the American century.” he said in the film’s press release.
While the plot is rooted in a painful past and modern legalities, the script and the direction made Maria’s story entirely approachable. The amount of comedy that occurs between her and her lawyer Randy was quite a surprise — but a welcome one.
“I do want this film to be entertaining and like a thriller — a courtroom drama — as well as very emotional and thought provoking.”
Helen Mirren, who plays Maria, and Ryan Reynolds, as Randy, were wonderfully matched. Their relationship on screen was believable from the get go.
Mirren was actually a bit young for the part, Curtis said. However, she brought a fierce commitment to the role and she was keen to do it justice. Her performance hit the mark dead on.
As for Reynolds, he just fit the part on every level.
“We wanted a brilliant actor and he just brought such intelligence and a sweetness that he has in common with the real Randy. It just worked. And his relationship with Helen both on and off the screen was just a joy to behold.”
As for the real Randy Schoenberg, he was delighted by their performances. He expressed to Curtis that the relationship seen on screen is very true to how he felt for Maria.
“He adored Maria in real life.” Curtis said. “I didn’t really know until the last few days (after) talking to him how much he thinks the film got right.”
That can be tricky when dealing with a real-life story and a complicated one at that. But Curtis said that hearing Schoenberg’s praise and delight is one of the greatest testaments to the film.
When it came to recreating the scenes leading up to and into the Nazi incursion Curtis drew inspiration from old footage. Some of the scenes were lifted exactly from period photographs. Shooting those scenes in Vienna was a profoundly powerful experience.
Surprisingly — or perhaps not so — the Venetians were welcoming of the film project.
“There was no sort of hostility towards us.” Curtis said. “But you can imagine that in Germany and Austria that the actors get tired of doing so many World War II stories.”
The flashback scenes are only about 15 to 20 percent of the film. They in no way slowed or impeded the main plot. However, that did free up some creative space for Curtis to explore things like colors, filters, and language. The pre-Nazi scenes of 1938 were golden with the glamor of the aristocratic Jewish population. This gave way to the more monochromatic palate that echoed the fear and desperation as Nazi control tightened.
In addition to the wonderfully subtle use of colors, the flashbacks were set apart by the German. That is to say, all the characters spoke only German in those scenes.
“That was very important to me. The fact that Maria was born in Vienna speaking German, and ended her life in America speaking English was a huge part of the story. It didn’t make sense to me if they were speaking English with a German accent.”
The fact that these scenes accounted for just barely a quarter of the film meant that they were highly powerful. The final moment between young Maria, (Tatiana Maslany), and her father (Allan Corduner), was made all the more poignant when he tells her, “And now I speak English, the language of your future.”
As far as instigating more reparation and repatriation of stolen artworks Curtis believes that it is an ongoing debate. Many artworks, not just in German or Austria, are being disputed. Whether “Woman In Gold” will stir up a renewed zeal in people remains to be seen.
It’s a complicated issue no matter which way you approach it.
“There was someone in Vienna who was thrilled that the painting was in New York because it was proclaiming Austria’s talent to the world. Some people think we should just let bygones be bygones, and some people don’t.”
As for Maria and her painting, the struggle for justice goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and beyond. But if you wish to know what happens, then you will just have to see the movie for yourself. It is a must-see film that is truly deserving of many gold stars. “Woman In Gold” opens nation-wide April 1.
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