Dame Helen Mirren, the only actress in history to portray Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II on screen, appears quite different playing an Austrian art collector living in Los Angeles in “Woman in Gold.”
Opening this week, the film is about Maria Altmann, a Jewish woman who escaped from Nazi-occupied Vienna to the U.S., where she spent the rest of her life (until her death in 2011) mourning the loss of her family and trying to reclaim its invaluable art collection, which included Gustav Klimt’s famed “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” also known as “Woman in Gold.”
Not only does the film address persisting questions about Austrian persecution of Jews, its dramatic legal battle had major financial implications. Valued at $135 million, the Bloch-Bauer portrait was a draw for cosmetics tycoon Ronald Lauder, who supported Altmann and was anxious to buy it (and other Klimt works) if it became possible. Simon Curtis – British Academy Award-nominee for his 2011 film directing debut “My Week With Marilyn” – cast Mirren for both practical and artistic reasons. Like Altmann, she has lived in Los Angeles for many years, and, at 69, is about the same age as Altmann was at the time the story takes place.
Calling her a “brilliant actress, with great instinct and diligence [and] perfect for the role,” Curtis says, “When Maria's sons saw her performance, they were deeply moved.”
Mirren, who speaks with Austrian and American accents in the movie, is, like Altmann, intelligent and her own woman, Curtis says.
“She doesn’t suffer fools. She’s of Russian descent and credible as someone from a Jewish milieu. She has both the wit and the anger of the character,” says Curtis, who previously worked as Mirren’s assistant in the theater in London, but directed her for the first time in “Woman in Gold.”
Mirren also assisted in shaping the script, which details how Altmann fought the Austrian government in court for eight years in a seemingly impossible quest to reclaim five Klimt paintings.
Ryan Reynolds portrays her young attorney, Randy Schoenberg, American grandson of the great Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg.
IF YOU GO
Woman in Gold
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes
Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes