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By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Simon Curtis On WOMAN IN GOLD

When he segued into film after notable work for the stage and in television, director Simon Curtis may not have set out to revive that staple of the Golden Age of movies, the “woman’s picture,” but so far he’s two for two.

Following up on his 2011 debut, My Week with Marilyn–the Michelle Williams-Eddie Redmayne-starrer that garnered Williams a Best Actress  nomination for her evocation of Marilyn Monroe–Curtis has partnered a second time with BBC Films and The Weinstein Company to bring another indomitable real-life femme to the screen. Woman in Gold is the dramatized account of the legal battles waged from 2000 to 2006 by Holocaust refugee Maria Altmann against the Austrian government to reclaim five Gustav Klimt paintings that the Nazis looted from her Jewish Viennese family after the Anschluss. Helen Mirren, nearly as regal and twice as feisty as she was in The Queen, plays the octogenarian Altmann; Ryan Reynolds costars as her idealistic Los Angeles attorney, E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg. Casting is one of the movie’s strong suits: supporting actors include “Orphan Black” sensation Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria; Daniel Bruhl as crusading Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin; Curtis’s wife Elizabeth McGovern (beloved by legions of “Downtown Abbey” fans) as Judge Florence Cooper; and the estimable Jonathan Pryce as Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

As I mentioned to Curtis when he came through Chicago recently, Woman in Gold is an unusual hybrid: a courtroom procedural, a Holocaust drama, and a love story–or two love stories, if in addition to the marriage of young Maria Bloch-Bauer to opera singer Fritz Altmann (Max Irons) you count the strong bond of mutual support, respect, affection, and gratitude that gradually develops between Randy and the elderly Maria. However did Curtis keep all those balls in the air at one time?

“It was like playing 3-D Sudoko,” he said. “We had to factor in the different genres; the flashbacks to the early 1900s [when Klimt painted his first portrait of Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the titular woman in gold] and to the 1930s; the various court proceedings [in the main temporal frame of the film]; plus, we were shooting in three countries: Austria, the UK, and the USA.” With that kind of pressure, did he surround himself with previous collaborators? “Actually,” he replied, “there were only a couple of holdovers from earlier works:  my first assistant director, Phil Booth, from the TV series ‘Cranford,’ and executive producer Christine Langan, head of BBC Films.” And how long did it take to edit all this material? “We finished the initial cut for our first New York test screening in eight weeks,” he said. At which point I began to wonder if this precise, professional, very reserved Englishman had a secret inner life as a raging adrenaline junkie.

So I had to ask him what kind of set he runs. “On the set, I am much calmer than I am actually feeling,” he admitted. “As a TV producer, I’ve seen some directors become destabilizing forces, a situation I aim to avoid.” I mentioned that I had read an interview he gave a few years ago in which he said that the job of a stage director is to serve the text; what’s the job of a film director? “To help everyone raise their own game,” he replied.

In Woman in Gold everyone’s game is raised, including Ryan Reynolds’s. Playing an underdog and borderline nebbish (a modified version of the real Randy Schoenberg), the actor once again demonstrates his considerable range, proving he’s more than the sum of his geniality and boy-next-door good looks. Reynolds’s critical reception over the years has often been puzzling; even his purported admirers, like John Patterson in a recent article in “The Guardian,” seem to damn him with faint praise. I just don’t get that, because the actor more than holds his own on screen with the always-compelling Mirren. “Absolutely,” agreed Curtis. “They got on tremendously. Ryan is a highly intelligent and intuitive actor. The scene late in the film where Randy breaks down at the Holocaust memorial is such a powerful moment. That scene, by the way, was based on a story the real Randy Shoenberg told us.”

The restraint with which the film treats what happened to Maria and the Bloch-Bauers in the 1930s is key to the movie’s appeal. In 1978 Elie Wiesel wrote in the New York Times that pop culture was in danger of trivializing the Holocaust; since then here have been so many representations of the Shoah in the media that outstanding movies like Claude Lanzmann’s ten-hours-and-fifteen-minute-long  epic, Shoah, wrongly get lumped in with kitsch like 2013’s The Book Thief. Given the acclaim My Week with Marilyn earned, Curtis could have chosen from any number of topics for his sophomore film; why Maria Altmann’s life? The end credits provide a clue, citing that Woman in Gold was inspired by the 2007 documentary Stealing Klimt, which was presented by Curtis’s friend Alan Yentob for the BBC’s “Imagine” series. But why retell this story now? What does Woman in Gold have to say to today’s moviegoers?

“A lot has to do with the importance of not forgetting,” Curtis acknowledged. [Indeed, in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s screenplay Maria has a line lamenting how short people’s memories are.] Curtis went on, “This century has begun in a very troubling way. We are now facing again the spectre of anti-Semitism resurging in Europe. We had to put in the film some kind of debate that underlined the human elements of this story.” In other words, it’s not just the ripped-from-the-headlines account of how Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” eventually was sold by Maria to Ronald S. Lauder for the (then record-breaking) sum of $135 million. “Yes,” Curtis affirmed, “it’s important to remember that this was a portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele, commissioned by Maria’s uncle.” The painting, along with others by Klimt, were treasured objects in the Bloch-Bauer home not just because of their exquisite artistry, but because they reflected the lives and passions of that remarkable, cultivated family. Maria’s long fight in the courts was not about the money, but about recovering her past, trying to hang on to the threads of all those she lost before and during the war, in order to keep their memory alive.

Knowing that Curtis is himself Jewish, I wondered if the wartime backdrop of Woman in Gold had any personal relevance for him. “I had a very secure upbringing,” he said. “My family’s arrival in the UK from Poland was at the beginning of the twentieth century, predating the Holocaust. But Maria’s story definitely resonates with my DNA.” His current project, as an executive producer, has distinctly English–and Asian–flavors: the Channel 4 co-production, with PBS’s “Masterpiece,” of “Indian Summers,” a TV mini-series about the end of the British Raj and the dawn of India’s struggle for independence. With a cast top-lined by Julie Walters, it sounds like another vehicle for a worthy actress who can carry a picture.

Reporter’s note: As an art lover who at a much younger age trained as a painter, I was enchanted early on by the works of Viennese Secessionist giant Gustav Klimt. Later, in 2006, after the five Klimt paintings Altmann and other relatives had rightfully inherited were restored to her by an Austrian arbitration court, I was lucky enough to view the artist’s two portraits of her aunt Adele, and his landscapes “Apple Tree I,” “Beech Woods (Birch Woods),” and “Houses in Unterach on Lake Atter,” in a revelatory exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For those who didn’t have that opportunity, consider a visit to the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, where the painter’s first portrait of Adele anchors an intimate new show, “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold,” on view through September 7. Afterwards, hop a bus or taxi south to the Museum of Modern Art, where “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II” is currently on display, on loan to MoMA from a private collector.

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“The loss of a local newspaper critic is a real loss. People who know the local audience and know the local cultural scene are very important resources. You can’t just substitute the stuff that comes in from nowhere through syndication or the wire. I think at the same time, some of the newer outlets have really beefed up and improved their coverage and made room for criticism. The real problem is in the more specialized art forms — fine arts, classical music, dance and jazz, say. There is a real slowing of critical voices, partly because those art forms have smaller audiences. Newspapers and magazines can say that doesn’t get enough traffic, so we don’t have room for that. To me, that’s especially worrisome. This is the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do, which is not to try to figure out what people are already interested in and recite that back to them, but to hopefully guide them to something that they should be interested in, connecting potential audiences with more interesting work.

“Then again, not everyone needs a critic. People have been going to movies for more than 100 years now, and probably the vast majority of those people have not read movie reviews or cared what critics thought. But there has always been an important subset that wants to know more, that wants to think about what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see, and wants someone to think along with. I think critics are important, not just as dispensers of consumer advice — though that’s certainly part of it, too — but as trusted voices and companions for people to argue with in your head when you’re going to movies or afterwards.”
~ A. O. Scott