Director Simon Curtis on Woman In Gold and working with Helen Mirren
PUBLISHED: 08:31 10 April 2015
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Ahead of its release in cinemas, Simon Curtis tells Alex Bellotti about his new film and the lost artistic treasures of World War Two
Last week the New York premiere of Woman In Gold grabbed British headlines as tabloids predictably pounced on the red carpet attire of its female stars, Helen Mirren and Katie Holmes. Yet the real picture of the night came just a few hours later, as members of the Altmann and Schoenberg families gathered under the painting they had fought to reclaim after more than 60 years.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, created in 1927 by Gustav Klint, is often referred to as the ‘Mona Lisa of Austria’, but as director Simon Curtis’ latest film reveals, to one woman it was simply a picture of her dear aunt Adele. Woman In Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann (Mirren), who decided to fight the Austrian government during the 1990s with her lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to reclaim the painting, which had been confiscated from her relatives by the Nazis in Vienna shortly before the outbreak of World War Two.
Shot across three different countries, the film’s crew set up base in Shoreditch while shooting scenes across London. Speaking ahead of its London premiere tomorrow (Friday), Curtis believes there is a reason that it has taken so long to address the impact Hitler’s mass seizure of valuable artwork had across Europe.
“Randol said something interesting last week. He said that World War Two was such an immense human catastrophe on so many levels, with so many people dying, that in the immediate aftermath of the war the human cost was the priority and art wasn’t that important.
“But as the years have gone on, it’s sort of gained in importance, especially to the last remaining survivors of that time.”
Curtis realised Maria’s story could be made into a film after watching a documentary about her court battle on the BBC. While the film’s theme shares some similarities with last year’s The Monuments Men, the director believes the heart of his production is “very much linking 1938 to 1998” – an idea he also suggests is the reason so many are now trying to reclaim their family’s lost art.
“Those people who have been lucky enough to survive are very conscious of the people who didn’t survive and it’s a way of making amends in some sense, isn’t it?
“We try to get that complexity in this film, that there’s the art but it’s also symbolic to Maria of the whole family that she lost.”
Of working with Mirren, Curtis reveals that there was a “gentle dialogue” between them at all stages, adding that “even the greatest actors like a dialogue with their director”.
Even with such a blockbuster cast, the director and his team were ultimately humbled not just by the story, but also by finally witnessing the Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I in person at its home in New York’s Neue Galerie New York.
“As Maria says in the film, the postcards don’t do it justice and it’s true that we’ve seen the reproduction in all kinds of places, on jam jars and slippers and God knows what, but nothing prepares you for its magnificence in person. It’s a wonderful painting.”
Woman in Gold is released in cinemas tomorrow (April 10)