'We must keep precious memories alive' says Helen Mirren, star of heritage film

'We must keep precious memories alive' says Helen Mirren, star of heritage film
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Words: Alison James    Pic: REX

When Helen Mirren first read the script for her latest film, Woman in Gold, she very quickly knew it was a movie she wanted to make.

The film tells the true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish survivor of the Second World War who sued the Austrian government for the return of artwork the Nazis stole from her family. The painting in question was Gustav Klimt’s world-famous portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer, who happened to be Maria’s aunt.

“It was, quite simply, the story that made me want to play Maria,” Helen explained at the film’s world premiere in Berlin. “I hadn’t been aware of her or what happened before I read the script. Somehow it had escaped me and, having read about it, I was very struck by Maria and what happened. It’s a story about justice, about family, about memories... and the fact we must never forget what’s gone before. This, I feel, is the real significance
of history.

“We take so much for granted and must always be reminded of what past generations went through. Sadly we’re now losing the generation that lived through the Second World War – ‘the greatest generation’ it has been called – and it’s up to those of us who’ve come after to keep those memories and that truth alive.”

Helen never met Maria as she passed away in 2011, aged 94 - but she says she got to know her through playing her in the film. “She was a remarkable, wonderful, funny, sexy, witty, humane and great, great woman. I hope I’ve done her justice. There are so many people from that particular conflict who did not receive any justice whatsoever – so one
little tiny moment of justice is
a great thing.”

Helen used to have a self-imposed rule not to play a real-life individual while they were still alive. However this rule was broken when she opted to play Elizabeth II in the 2006 film, The Queen: the role for which she won her Oscar.

'People misunderstand the Queen because she doesn’t smile all the time. But she’s not a movie star... smiling is not a requirement'

She went on to play Her Majesty again in The Audience, a London West End play in 2013, and won a coveted Olivier Award. Two years on, she’s taken the play to New York and is winning rave reviews on Broadway, with tickets selling like hot cakes. She’s also tipped to be nominated for a coveted Tony award for her performance.

What makes these theatrical achievements even more outstanding is that initially Helen was opposed to resurrecting the film role on stage. “I was determined not to do it,” she said recently. “I went to a read-through convinced that at the end I’d say no because it just wasn’t right for me. Not now or at any time. But then I walked into the rehearsal room and there was the great designer Bob Crowley, Stephen Daldry – one of the great theatre directors, the producer Robert Fox, and writer Peter Morgan. I looked at that team, and said to myself, ‘Don’t be an idiot. You can’t walk away from this.’”

Having played the Queen three times in nine years, Helen’s view on those born into royalty is interesting. Speaking recently she said: “They are, in a way, aliens,” she says. “You’ve never queued, ever, for anything. Every time you go in the street, the traffic is stopped for you. It’s a world you can’t imagine. But inside, they are the same flawed, insecure, vulnerable, complicated human beings we are. It’s my job to get into the person who’s inside
that world.

“I think people misunderstand the Queen because she doesn’t smile all the time. But she’s not a movie star – she’s a queen. Smiling is not a requirement. What’s required is to be dignified, to be almost iconic and self-controlled. Not to be charming. In the end, I prefer that to someone who smiles a lot. I don’t think my portrayal of her has changed because she hasn’t changed. The point of the Queen, in a way, is this incredible consistency.”

You can’t imagine someone as calm and in control as Helen Mirren turning to jelly from nerves but that’s just what happened when she first met the Queen in person. “I was paralysed with fear and embarrassment and mortification. I got what we call ‘Queenitis’ which is when you see the Queen, you just become this babbling idiot, and say these ridiculous things! To this day I don’t know if she’s ever seen the film, The Queen, or what she thought of it. I wish she had come to see the play, but it would have been impossible.”

Helen (69) is, of course, a member of acting royalty, having been made a Dame in 2003. Initially she has admitted she was ambivalent about the honour because it was a bit “too establishment.” But knowing her father and Russian ancestors would have been so proud she accepted the title – and found herself feeling proud too. “I’ve been a Dame now for quite a long time, but I don't think on it until someone says so,” she says. “Then I say, ‘Oh yes, that’s right. I forgot!’ ”

  • Woman in Gold is in UK cinemas now

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