ONE particular film selected for the Special Screenings section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival is rather special, and not just because it stars Dame Helen Mirren — Woman In Gold revolves around a very famous legal battles of the last millenium.
Back in the nineties, Los Angeles-based Maria Altmann sued the government of Austria in a case that reached the Supreme Court of the United States. She wanted five paintings which belonged to her uncle back from the Austrian State Gallery. These paintings, contrary to popular belief were never officially donated to the state.
The late Altmann, a Jewish refugee based in Los Angeles, went through quite a bit of hell to obtain her family heirlooms from the Austrian government but her struggle paid off handsomely: one of the five paintings was Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which netted Altmann a sum of US$135,000,000 at an auction in 2006.
During a special appearance in front of cinema audiences attending the film’s screening, Mirren and director Simon Curtis participated in a short question and answer session.
Curtis called the proceedings which inspired the film “an extraordinary story of the 20th century” and spoke of his admiration for the late Altmann.
“Maria was born in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century when Vienna was arguably the most exciting city in the world — you could say it was where Freud, Mahler, Schoenberg and all the great ideas of the 20th century originated,” explained Curtis.
“She lived through the trauma of World War II and was forced to leave the country, and then she reinvented herself in America. Like the painting, she also ended her life there.”
Of Jewish descent, Curtis also identified with Altmann whom he says reminds him of his own grandmother.
Woman In Gold tells the Maria Altmann story using a stellar cast which also includes Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl and Katie Holmes. It first premiered at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival back in February this year and was released to cinemas in April, where it made US$55,000,000, well above its US$11,000,000 budget.
Recently turning 70, Academy Award-winner Mirren signed onto the project after agreeing with the script.
“The actress in me recognized that this was a wonderful role,” Mirren stated, “but much more than that, the story touched me very profoundly.”
Born on the day the Postdam Declaration was signed, she revealed to audiences that her parents lived in London throughout the war and to this day she has trouble comprehending life during such turbulent times.
“The thought of losing your whole family,” mused Mirren, “and with your family the memories that you share with them… oh do you remember our pet dog, or, oh look at that jug, that was my grandmother’s.”
“These simple human memories are so incredibly important to us — they give us identity. To find yourself with all that ripped away just struck me as the most devastating human experience.”
Even if the general public do not have a clear idea of Maria Altmann’s characteristics, Mirren was dedicated to making her portrayal as accurate as possible. She employed the right accent, studied Altmann’s physicality and “little gestures”, and also changed her hair and the colour of her eyes in order to do justice to her role.
Mirren insists however that it’s more than a matter of merely looking and sounding like the late Altmann.
“There are much more important things than that in this kind of work, and that’s to get inside of the person and look at the world through their eyes,” she pointed out.
It’s fair to say she succeeded as evident from reviews of the film. Although critics don’t necessarily agree with Woman In Gold‘s treatment, they strongly approve of Mirren’s performance. Curtis also proudly stated that Altmann’s family and friends were equally as impressed with Mirren’s portrayal.
Midway through the question and answer session, both Mirren and Curtis were joined by Japanese actor Koji Ishizaka who handed them both large bouquets of gold-coated flowers. Ishizaka also claimed that Helen reminds her of Queen Elizabeth who once stood in front of him in a television station.
Mirren was taken by surprise with the gesture, candidly refusing to hand over the flowers to festival staff who wanted to assist her. Attendees were greatly appreciative of her appearance, with many swarming to get her autograph as she left the hall. She endearingly made the effort to sign as many as possible before being whisked away by organisers.
Prior to making an exit, Mirren had just one more important thing to say to viewers.
“Laugh when it’s funny and cry when it’s sad,” Mirren requested in closing, “but most of all, enjoy the movie.”
The Daily Seni‘s coverage of the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival was made possible by festival organisers as well as TIFFCOM 2015 and the Japan Foundation Asia Center. This year’s edition runs from 22 – 31 October in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, with events also happening across Shinjuku.