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Categories: Movie Reviews

AD Cooper reviews “Woman in Gold”, a Simon Curtis-directed biopic in which Helen Mirren stars as Maria Altmann, a woman who fled Nazi Austria during World War II.

Woman in Gold is the true story of Maria Altmann, a woman who fled the Nazis when they invaded her native Vienna in World War II. 

By the late 2000s, Maria is well established in Hollywood, running an upmarket clothing boutique.  On the death of her only sister, Maria feels moved to try and get back some of the art looted from her family’s Viennese apartment by the Nazis.  It included a glittering world-famous portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer painted in 1907 by the ground-breaking Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. By now, the painting is well entrenched in a gallery in Vienna, where it was considered to be a vital piece of Austrian heritage owned by the state – like the Mona Lisa is to the French. 

Woman in Gold or Adele Bloch-Bauer

“Woman in Gold”, or Adele Bloch-Bauer

Through her Austrian émigré contacts, she recruits the help of E Randol Schoenberg (Randy), an American lawyer who also happens to be the grandson of the Austrian composer Schoenberg. Randy, played by Ryan Reynolds, is at a low ebb, having failed to make his own law firm pay. He’s got a young family to support, including a wife played by Katie Holmes, so he takes a job with a big city lawyer, headed up by Charles Dance with glacial disdain. But the opportunity for getting restitution for Maria is too alluring, partly because he starts on a journey to find his own heritage.  

There are ups and down, twists and turns in this tale of one old lady who’s determined to right the wrongs done to her family – most of whom didn’t make it out of the death camps.  As a young woman, in those scenes played by Tatiana Maslany, Maria and her husband (Max Irons) had escaped to America with just the clothes on their backs. After a long string of court cases, they are able to sue the Austrian Government to get the Klimt paintings restored to Maria as the rightful owner.  Naturally, with a picture of such national importance, the Austrians aren’t going to be a pushover. This film is part gentle detective story, part legal drama, part historical reconstruction, with the greatest appeal probably to the over-40s. 

The film was inspired by a documentary screened on the BBC (one of three documentaries on the subject in the last 15 years). Director Simon Curtis saw it and perceived its value as a biopic, and soon recruited unwavering support from “another Jewish boy” called Harvey Weinstein, working in co-production with BBC Films.  Curtis comes from a theatre background, and he commissioned Royal Court writer Alexi Kaye Campbell to create the script.  It wasn’t an easy experience, as Campbell had never written a film script and he had to extract the story from Randy’s voluminous case notes.

Helen Mirren & Ryan Reynolds

Filming took place during the summer of 2014 in Los Angeles, Vienna and London with a $20 million budget. Pre-war Vienna looks sumptuous, with a joyous family wedding party of particular note. But the money has been judiciously spent. In one scene in Vienna, Nazi banners were hung from the town hall and the Nazi army rolled into town to the sound of flag waving and Nazi-saluting crowds. In fact, they had only a few armored vehicles and a minimal number of extras in period costume, so they did seven passes of the same shot rearranging the vehicles and crowd each time. In post, the seven passes were matted together to create a well-populated and impressive triumphant march in front of a huge crowd. 

The London shoot days allowed easy access for top-notch British actors in supporting American roles to come out to Shepperton for the day, including Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Price and Ben Miles. The director also tried to find German actors for the Vienna scenes as he was determined that they should feature natural German dialogue rather than clichéd English wiz ze clipt Cherman accent. He had in his mind the British actors Henry Goodman and Allan Corduner to play Maria’s father and brother (husband of Adele), and cast them after failing to find any actors of the right age and stature in Germany. Luckily both Goodman and Corduner speak German and are entirely believable as the loving brothers. 

Ryan Reynolds, who has made his name in blockbusters, video games and cartoons is something of a revelation. He’s entirely credible as the principled lawyer with a score to settle, with his doe-eyed preppie looks hiding a patient steely determination.  Helen Mirren channels a bit of Queen Elizabeth II into her doughty Maria who uses rhetoric as an effective manipulative tool. 

The real Maria Altmann, who died in 2012

The real Maria Altmann, who died in 2012

A lot of screen time is filled with court hearings and speeches presenting cases (with the real Randy advising for extra authenticity), following much rummaging in archives assisted by an Austrian journalist played by Daniel Brühl. Despite this, the story is essentially a personal one, split between Vienna before and during the Nazi occupation, and modern day California. It succeeds in every way that The Monuments Men failed.  Clearly there’s a zeitgeist to move on from World War 2 films into restitution films. At the end of the film, we learn that an estimated 100,000 pieces of art are still not returned to their rightful, often Jewish owners.  This seems like an underestimate.

It’s a good-looking film, but it doesn’t need a big screen to be appreciated, and it is very much enhanced by Hans Zimmer and Martin Phipps’ atmospheric music. Since premiering at Berlinale in January 2015, Woman in Gold has been received well around the world. Most interestingly, the Austrian government has said they believe it should be shown in all Austrian schools.   

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A D Cooper is a director, producer, writer and multi-media copywriter. She’s won awards for advertising writing, for screenplays long and short, written 80+ scripts for Ninja Warrior (Challenge TV) and published articles, short stories and joke books. Weary of waiting for someone to film her scripts, she started directing in 2010 creating a slate of short films including two corporates, a documentary and a museum installation. All of her fiction shorts for Hurcheon Films have been selected for international festivals, with Ace (2013) garnering five awards. Her most recent projects are an award-winning historical docushort Writing the Peace, a stage version of her World War 1 short film A Small Dot On The Western Front which she wrote, produced and directed, an experimental short film Spring on the Strand (selected for 3 festivals in the USA), The Penny Dropped (Award of Merit in a US shorts competition), and Home to the Hangers newly completed for the Directors UK Alexa Challenge 2017.

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Posted on Apr 17, 2015

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