Director Simon Curtis’ terrific new film, Woman In Gold opens April 1st and I will have a full video review of it on Monday. But the movie actually had its World Premiere February 9th at the Berlin Film Festival and critics came gunning for it. “A stodgy crusade for justice directed with minimal flair,” said one. “Heavy handed,” said another. “For a while I wasn’t quite sure why I hated Woman In Gold so very, very much,” was another opinion. With only seven reviews counted on Rotten Tomatoes so far only one drew a fresh and its score right now just days before its domestic release stands at 17%. The Weinstein Company is distributing the film, and Harvey Weinstein really wanted to launch it in Berlin, but you can bet those reviews stung. I had actually seen it before Berlin and I have to say I was kind of stunned by those reviews. Did those critics see the same movie I did? Another person who was quite surprised was Curtis himself. “Yes I was,” he told me in a phone conversation this morning after he just returned from a 10-day, 10-city tour with the film. “We went to the Berlin Film Festival and played to this massive house of 2,000 people and it played astonishingly well. It was very moving to take this story into the heart of Berlin and the response just blew us away. So by the time you get to the party and your Blackberry is sending you other things is a might confusing.” Indeed.
The film based on a true story stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, a Jewish woman who had fled Vienna during World War II, and 60 years later begins an attempt, with the help of a very green lawyer Randy Schoenberg (played by Ryan Reynolds), to reclaim her family possessions stolen by the Nazis, including a very famous painting by Gustav Klimt. The journey not only takes them to the highest courts in both Austria and the United States but also helps both rediscover their own similar family pasts. Both stars are excellent. So does Curtis regret going to Berlin? “We were rushing for Berlin. The score (by Hans Zimmer and Martin Phipps) was very, very new to us and we were too much in love with the score. That thing, the Warren Beatty thing, that you never really finish a film, you just abandon it?”, he laughed about taking his unfinished cut to a major world festival. So after Berlin, but not because of it, The Weinstein Company and the BBC allowed him to finish the film the way he intended.
“We made changes in two ways actually, dialing back the score was one. I am very proud of the score but sometimes we could let the scenes breathe a little more. I think the film gained from that. The composers worked brilliantly together but it could be argued that we went a bit too far, made the music too dominant. That was the key thing and it made the film play better,” he said. The other thing was that there were so many strands in the film it was playing like a history of the whole 20th century and they over-explained the story points too much.
“At test screenings people asked what happened to that character and so on, so with ADR and looping we went a bit too far to put in too much of some of those over-explanatory lines in it to make sure everything landed for everybody. I think post-Berlin it allowed us to go and pull some of those out and again let those scenes breathe more, let there be a pause there rather than filling it with a line that TOLD the story about something,” he said.
Although the film is filled with tension and emotion, he said he was also able to go in and better emphasize the humor, especially with the instant on-set chemistry between Mirren and Reynolds. Harvey Weinstein, who was just honored by the Simon Weisenthal Center this week, supported him all the way. “He is the only person that is as passionate about this film as I was. I have been besotted by this story since day one and so has he,” Curtis said. Of course the Weinsteins have had a long history with film festivals, both good and bad. A couple of years ago they were skewered by critics at the Toronto International Film Festival for both Mandela and August Osage County. Those films just weren’t completely finished. Festivals can be a double-edged sword. Alexander Payne tweaked his Oscar-nominated Nebraska between its Cannes and Telluride screenings and it made a huge difference in the tone of the film, really bringing out the humor that seemed much darker in Cannes.
So now Curtis, who previously directed the Oscar-nominated My Week With Marilyn for the Weinsteins and the BBC, will have his own day in the court of public opinion when the film opens next week. “So many films aren’t about something. This IS about something and I am very proud of it. It is also unashamedly emotional. I didn’t study those reviews but it seems there is a fear of emotion in them. I have seen this with audiences in 10 cities and Berlin and it makes me enormously proud as a filmmaker,” he said adding that he remembers going through a similar experience with early reviews on My Week With Marilyn.
“I remember someone at the Weinstein Company calling me up about My Week With Marilyn to be prepared for a scathing review in the New York Times. And I remember reading the trades and having to take to my bed in depression. Now several years later it is hailed as a physical triumph.”