Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn), from a debut screenplay from award-winning playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, Woman in Gold is based on the extraordinary true story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles who fought the Austrian government to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting of her aunt, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’, stripped of all identity and re-named ‘Woman in Gold’, after it was confiscated from her relatives by the Nazis in Vienna just prior to World War II. Learn more about the story and why I recommend it this week after the jump.
It is 1998 and an elderly Maria (Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey), after attending the funeral of her sister, discovers letters in her possession dating back to the late 1940’s, which reveal an attempt to recover the stolen Klimt artworks. She enlists Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, Buried), an inexperienced lawyer with a young family, to investigate and make a claim to the art restitution board in Austria. She is eager to assist Randy but is reluctant to journey to the homeland she left behind so many years earlier. There they find stubborn opposition from the Austrian government and the State Gallery’s art director, who is unwilling to part with painting and is of the belief that it has become part of the national identity. With the help of Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) they dig into Maria’s family history and discover a trail of evidence strong enough to build a case and bring justice to the regime’s actions.
In intermittent flashback, which are accentuated by a chrome colour grade, we are revealed to the story of young Maria (portrayed by Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black), her relationship with her family, marriage to Fredrick (Max Irons, The Riot Club), and their desperate flee from Nazi house arrest. Just as we get deeper into the present case and we see the frustration begin to appear beneath Maria’s composed mask, we learn why Maria must win this portrait back for her family.
What surprised me most about Woman in Gold was that the story was ultimately less about the rightful ownership of the artwork, the desire to possess a priceless work of art, but about a guilt-ridden woman seeking to reconnect with a family she was forced to leave behind – an aunt she loved dearly, proud parents who urged her to leave Vienna and find a better life – and a country defiled by Nazi Germany. The result is rather powerful. If you didn’t shed a tear in the first of two wonderful late scenes, the second will get you. Working especially well in the latter stages is the Phipps/Zimmer score.
There are a couple of weak performances – Katie Holmes, who plays Randy’s wife, and Ben Miles, a soulless representation of Ronald Lauder – and some bafflingly unprofessional Supreme Court behaviour, but this has little bearing.
This is a solid two-hander, as much Randy’s story as Maria’s. He initially feels inconvenienced by Maria’s request, and helps begrudgingly. When he learns about the value of the painting, his motivation is the prospect of wealth. Nothing more. In the end, he comes to understand the injustice to Maria’s family, what she left behind and the lingering presence of Nazi policy in the Austrian government and vows to do everything he can to turn that around. The narrative actually subtly shifts focus in the latter stages, as Maria somewhat recedes her claim. But, for Randy, he sees this now-landmark case as a moment in history – a way to remind Vienna of the atrocities of the past, and how a change in art restitution policy is a step in further obliterating their presence.
Woman in Gold is a crowd-pleaser, a compelling and digestible legal drama pristinely tailored for an older audience featuring one of their beloved Dames. But, it has more guts than I expected, serving as a reminder of how the Nazi regime continues to pollute unopposed the highest levels of Austrian politics and the rights of its citizens. While not the most enigmatic film in terms of craft, the power of the story – drawn from the memoirs of both Altmann and Schoenberg – and the more than serviceable performances from Mirren and Reynolds carry this film to it’s immensely moving conclusion. Mirren is particularly strong, but that is hardly a surprise is it? While some may find some parts lacquered in emotional sentimentality, having taken this journey with Maria and Randy, my emotions were real. Go see it.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Simon Curtis
Writer(s): Alexi Kaye Campbell
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany
Runtime: 110 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: May 21