Helen Mirren: the powerful woman's powerful woman

Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren in a scene from Woman in Gold.
Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren in a scene from Woman in Gold. Photos Contributed

SHE'S portrayed a string of powerful women throughout history on the big screen, and Academy Award-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren has rightly earnt her place among them.

Speaking to Weekend after coming off stage playing Queen Elizabeth II in a matinee performance of The Audience on Broadway, Mirren's passion flows when she talks about her latest movie role, Woman in Gold.

The film tells the remarkable true story of Maria Altmann's journey to reclaim her heritage and seek justice for what happened to her family.

Sixty years after she fled Vienna during the Second World War, Mirren's character Maria starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt's famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

Together with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), she sets off on a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the US Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past.

"It was a film we all loved working on and felt strongly about," Mirren told Weekend.

"It was a story I didn't know anything about before being exposed to it … and I was blown away.

"I knew the painting incredibly well. When I was a student everyone had a poster of (the Woman in Gold) on the wall in their digs but I never knew the story behind it."

To prepare for the role of Maria, the Oscar and BAFTA- winning actress initially turned to a doctor friend in LA who knew Altmann's story and said Maria was exactly like his own mother.

He interviewed his mother about her life on camera, offering Mirren a window into the well-educated Jewish- Viennese heritage she would be bringing to life on screen.

"She had a similar trajectory to Maria and she still had a very strong accent," Mirren says. "It was very useful to me."

Telling Maria's story to the world, especially the younger generation, was vital for Mirren.

"The nature of the story and the truth of the story was powerful and it was important to be told," she says.

"Because people forget, you see… especially the young. That was my reason for doing it, in a sense to remind people what happened to that generation.

"To me, while it happened before I was born, and while others see me as incredibly ancient (laughs) it really wasn't that long ago.

"We need to remind ourselves what human beings are capable of and at the same time give dignity and honour to that generation."

To the younger generations that watch her work on the big screen, the message of why they should watch Woman in Gold and learn more about what happened during Nazi Germany was simple:

"Young people watch The Hunger Games - this was the reality of that situation," Mirren says.

"This was the reality of being hunted. The reality of having to escape in great danger and in great fear… this is the real Hunger Games.

"It's through the real true story of Maria Altmann and her incredible story of being chased and getting her painting back that belonged to her."

Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, is in cinemas now.

Woman in Gold

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Charles Dance

Director: Simon Curtis

Rating: M

Reviewer's last word: Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds are both excellent in this post-war mission to recover a stolen piece of art but the plot treatment feels like a bit of a missed opportunity considering the ripper real-life story on which the film is based.

Star profile: Ryan Reynolds

Quirky fact: Has a fear of flying after he once went skydiving and the parachute failed to open at the first attempt.

Best known for: Van Wilder: Party Liaison, Green Lantern, Safe House.

If you like this movie you'll like these: The Age of Adaline, A Little Chaos, The Monuments Men.

Quote: "Acting has given me a way to channel my angst. I feel like an overweight, pimply faced kid a lot of the time - and finding a way to access that insecurity, and put it toward something creative is incredibly rewarding."

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