Fiona Leckerman is drawn into the story of Woman In Gold, recently released in cinemas, which follows the story of a fight to reclaim a Gustav Klimt painting stolen by the Nazis. Here she reviews the film and interviews its director, Simon Curtis
After cinemas across the world have been painted with multiple shades of Grey, it’s a welcome relief to watch a film with more depth, meaning and certainly colour – as found in Woman in Gold.
The film tells the incredible true story of how the Gustav Klimt painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I, stolen by the Nazis, was reclaimed and returned to its original Jewish owner.
The unfalteringly talented Helen Mirren stars as Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, the octogenarian who successfully fought the Austrian government with the help of lawyer Randy Schoenberg, played by all-American hero Ryan Reynolds.
Woman in Gold is a cross between The Monuments Men and Philomena, touching on the same themes as the former of art theft by the Nazis, while the mother-son relationship of Maria and Randy has echoes in the latter.
Markedly a Harvey Weinstein production, with a star-studded cast including Tatiana Maslany, Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce and Katie Homes, the glossy Hollywoodisation of the story leaves no doubt that good will out.
As the 1907 Klimt work, the most famous of his golden phase of paintings, was considered the Mona Lisa of Austria and with the Austrians unwilling to part with it, half the narrative focuses on how Maria and Randy circumnavigate various legalities, making dramatic work of Randy’s sudden discovery of a legal loophole which allows the pair to bring the Austrian government to court.
The ardour of their legal process sees director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) use lots of meaningful close-ups of Mirren and Reynolds as they are thwarted. This drags slightly and it is only in Maria’s many flashbacks, integrated by clever use of sound editing, that the film picks up pace, spilling empathy and horror as it races along and we see the life that Maria Altmann left behind.
Tatiana Maslany plays a young Maria with emotive brilliance, along with Max Irons as her husband Fritz. Their story is perhaps the most compelling and touches on the climate of fear and the terrible sense of the unknown horrors to come. In the opening sequence, Klimt stops painting Adele and asks her what is wrong. She sighs, adding an eerie sense of foreboding: “I worry too much about the future.”
The script interweaves morsels of meaning, as when Maria expresses her reason for wanting to get her painting back and says, “I have to do what I can to keep those memories alive, because people forget and then there is justice.”
The film shines in the final emotional sequences as the young Maria says her final heart-breaking goodbye to her parents. Never has there been a more compelling re-enacting of a Holocaust moment than this.
Talking to director Simon Curtis, we discuss a scene in which a Nazi raises aloft a silver goblet. It is one of many items being listed and commandeered as part of the invasion of Austria, but this particular object is no ordinary film prop. It holds special significance for Curtis as it is his grandfather’s seder goblet and its inclusion in the film is evidence of Curtis’s very personal passion for the project.
This is a pivotal moment of Maria Altman’s story in Woman in Gold; it was here that the Nazis claimed the painting, which they renamed and in so doing stamped out its Jewish history. The film then goes on to recount how Altmann took the Austrian government to court, winning back the rightful ownership of her aunt’s portrait, arguably the best-known example of Klimt’s work.
When Curtis saw the Alan Yentob BBC documentary on the subject, he thought instantly that it was brilliant and that the story was one that needed to be fleshed out in a film. The director moved on to the project after completing My Week with Marilyn, collaborating on it with BBC Films and the Weinstein Company.
Woman in Gold is released in a year that sees not only the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz but a surge in anti-Semitism. Curtis agrees that “it’s a very timely moment to remind people of the perils of anti-Semitism or indeed of picking on anybody for reasons of race or religion.” And he adds: “You could argue that this film is timelier now than when we started thinking about it years ago.” Curtis is struck by the importance of retelling Maria Altmann’s story, which he describes as a love letter to family, art and immigration. Maria’s connection to family is essential to the narrative, Curtis says. “I love the scene where Maria declares ‘I want to go and visit my aunt’”.
He continues: “It was very very important to me to use those family scenes to illustrate that this community was destroyed overnight.” Curtis points out that the use of sequences from Maria’s past as a young girl in Austria juxtaposed with the freedom she enjoys as an older woman in Los Angeles proved to him that by delving into the past he was able to show what was lost and how what happened motivates Maria to fight for her aunt’s property.
The magnificent Klimt painting, working as the axis from which all the film’s themes spin off, was visited often by Curtis as he prepared to put the story on celluloid. He describes the work of art as “all that was symbolic and extraordinary about Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century”.
Admitting that the issue of art reparations is a complex one, the director continues: “It’s cathartic and redemptive for the Austrians to have given this painting back.” A product of a Jewish immigrant family in England, Curtis shares a connection with lawyer Randy Schoenberg that is particularly strong. “Our Randy is much more an all-American kid who learns his family history and what his ancestors went through to get him where he is today,”
Curtis explains. Through Randy, who Curtis says shares the same disarming sweetness as the real Randy, the audience can follow this journey.
It is clear that Woman in Gold was a stirring experience for Curtis as he affirms: “It was a tremendous honour to tell this story. “It’s a story that meant a lot to me personally in all kinds of ways.”