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Working with an up-and-coming star, an established comedic/action star, and a legendary British actress makes for an eclectic, exciting cast in Woman in Gold. With Tatiana Maslany, Ryan Reynolds, and Helen Mirren, director Simon Curtis had his work cut out for him in the story of a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust attempting to reclaim something that is rightfully hers.

Following up My Week With Marilyn, his breakthrough success in 2011, was no easy feat, but Curtis realized the similarities between the two stories and found a connection. “They’re both stories of young men discovering themselves in the shadows of these women,” Curtis noted, with Reynolds playing the younger man here while Eddie Redmayne followed Michelle Williams’ Marilyn Monroe. Yet Helen Mirren’s Maria Altmann is certainly no Marilyn, since she largely has kept herself shut off in her clothing store in hopes of putting her past behind her.

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The death of a loved one, though, leaves Maria reeling as she discovers that her aunt’s priceless portrait is still in Austria without any signs of being returned. Curtis found the story to be wholly authentic to its representation of the two eras in the film, both at the start of World War II in Austria and in present day Los Angeles, where the two heroes live. Curtis elaborated, “I just want to tell good stories, so a lot of times that means telling ones based on real people or situations. It makes for better stories more often than not.”

As for Ryan Reynolds, he plays Randol, a young lawyer that sees potential in Maria’s case, even after initially wanting to join her fight only because of the potential wealth he could accrue. He’s supporting his family and his newborn child, while also preparing for another kid coming along. Randol also has a connection to an Austrian past, as his family has descended from famous musicians in the country before emigrating to the U.S. There’s a moment at the Holocaust Memorial in Austria that Curtis says “is a cathartic moment for everyone involved: the audience, Randol, and even Maria. He has been shutting himself inside for so long, insisting that the past should remain in the past, but now finally has to fight with those emotions that have long been buried within him.”

The film is built around the framework of the narrative in the 1940s, with a young Maria (played by Maslany) escaping Austria while her family is left behind. It was best for her and her family since they were presumably being prepared for death camps. It’s harrowing stuff that feels familiar for those that have either studied the era or seen films about the Holocaust. But Curtis sees a difference in his story. “It’s a film about a woman coming to terms with a past that deeply troubles her, but also brings her great joy. She loved Austria but it was taken away from her without any choice. That leaves her fighting to both preserve her past but also reconcile with those deeply rooted emotions, which Helen did masterfully.”

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There’s a certain level of cultural significance placed on art in the film, considering the primary conflict involves Randol and Maria fighting for the painting to be returned to the U.S. and placed in Maria’s custody. Curtis said, “This painting means the world to Maria. It’s a piece of her past that she does not want to let go of, even if he brings her memories that may not be the happiest. It’s a time in her life when she felt loved and surrounded by family, and the art reflects that.”

As for Curtis’s future films, he could not discuss any details but said that they would follow a “similar path” with his most recent efforts. He wants to work with a variety of Hollywood actors in the future, considering he has worked with so many British stars in the past few years; there are “too many” that he cannot narrow it down to a select few.

The film packs emotional heft in its scenes within the framework of the Holocaust, particularly in tender moments involving young Maria (Maslany) and her lover, Fritz (Max Irons). Appearances by Daniel Brühl, Jonathan Pryce, and Charles Dance (best known from Game of Thrones) also add gravitas to the film’s modern day setting.

The Woman in Gold opens in select theaters on Wednesday, April 1st. 

Written by Eric Forthun