True story: In 1938, the Nazis occupied Austria, where Maria Altmann’s Jewish family lived. Famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt painted two portraits of Maria’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer (as well as three other paintings given to the Altmanns), but these works of art were confiscated by the Nazis, and eventually found a home at the Austrian state gallery in Vienna. The portraits of Adele did not originally have poetic titles, but have come to be known as “Woman in Gold“; they are now iconic and their worth is in the millions. Cut to the mid 1990s, when a now-elderly Maria enlists the help of young lawyer Randy Schönberg to reclaim the paintings as the Altmann family’s property. If you read the relevant headlines, you know that the Supreme Court ruled in Maria’s favor in 2004, and now this humanistic story has been adapted for the screen, with Helen Mirren as Maria, and Ryan Reynolds as Randy. The film itself is split between the present-day legal and emotional story, and occasional flashbacks starring Tatiana Maslany as Maria which show the Nazi occupation and the tearing apart of the Altmann clan. Phew!
The present-day scenes lack an element of narrative drive, even while they are well-drawn; the flashbacks compensate for that, featuring a chase scene and the inherent tension of the Third Reich. But the present-day story makes up for its lack of spark with good chemistry between Mirren and Reynolds, and more importantly, well-pitched sentimentality. While the portraits of Adele have become Austrian Mona Lisas, Maria still only sees them as family heirlooms, taken from her by tragically well-organized thugs. When Maria visits the Woman in Gold painting in Vienna, she refers to it as spending time with her aunt. Along every step of the road that leads to the Supreme Court, the emotional underpinning of the case always comes through.
Those emotional beats all work as they should, but there is a hint of disingenuousness I have to make a note of. Watching the film purifies Maria’s intentions by creating a clear emotional setup and shorthand. The case is only presented as one of principle, and although Randy acknowledges a monetary motivation for reclaiming the paintings, it only comes up once and not in the presence of Maria. Here’s how the aftermath of the court case works in the film, after Maria has the five Klimts: Maria sells the paintings to a New York gallery on the condition they be a permanent exhibit. Now, here’s how things went down in real life: she let Christie’s manage an auction where the paintings went to the highest bidder; the paintings could quite easily have gone to a private collector with no intention of displaying them anywhere, although as it happens a gallery owner did win the Woman in Gold painting and displays it publicly there.
Now, this is a complicated issue, with several factors to consider, and questions to be asked. Did Maria consider keeping the paintings for herself? Did she need the money to pay Randy for his legal services, in the wake of his being fired for being too dedicated to her case? Was it always Maria’s intention, in the event that she won, to simply have the paintings moved from one public venue in Austria to a public venue in the United States, with the only practical difference being that now she is a millionaire? My point is not to judge anyone, but to list the complications in the situation. But the film itself doesn’t engage with any of these questions. By continuing to only play the sympathy card at the expense of interesting and intelligent discussion as to what to do with these iconic paintings once they’re won, the film comes across as too simple-minded.
As long as I’m getting negative, Katie Holmes is in a thankless role as Randy’s supportive, at one point pregnant wife. There’s a scene where she gives him her blessing to continue as a bulldog chewing on the bone of this case, which is what you’d expect in this dramatic progression, but it’s done in the most awkward way I can think of. Her water literally just broke, and here she calmly tells her husband to get on the plane to Austria. It just comes across as really strange, the bad kind of strange.
Also, a little musical nitpick. There’s a pre-occupation wedding reception dance scene in the flashback, that *MILD SPOILERS* Maria revisits and interacts with in the final scene of the film. In the flashback, there’s a discordant, loud and menacing organ cue to remind the audience that the Nazis are coming; it’s Maria’s retroactive tainting of the happy memory, which is an interesting choice. At the end we have the interactive flashback, with the elderly Maria entering it. Here, there’s another unwieldy pound on the organ. This scene is supposed to be a recapitulation of the earlier scene, to reclaim the happiness of the memory, but the music soars so high and is mixed so loud that it comes off as effectively indistinguishable from the disconcerting organ playing in the original flashback. Then you remember that the score was co-composed by Hans Zimmer. In recent years he’s been the butt of jokes when he’s perceived to “fall asleep on the organ”, and here’s Exhibit B for the prosecution.
After all that, though, I liked the film well enough. The performances are great, of course. I shouldn’t even have to say that Helen Mirren owns the role. I’d also like to mention Tatiana Maslany, who I totally bought as a younger Mirren (it’s the mouth). Ryan Reynolds adapts to a different type of performance from what he’s been given before, but I think the standout supporting player is Daniel Brühl as an Austrian ally of Maria and Randy. Finally: a tiny detail I like is that when characters speak a language other than English, the subtitles don’t put periods on the end of lines. This gives the appearance of poetry.
Woman in Gold is a good story mostly well told. The performances across the board are solid, and the production itself is handsome. It’s just that the film lacks the energy of director Simon Curtis’ previous My Week with Marilyn, and that it wants to close the curtain on a photo finish without engaging the audience in some of the complicating factors in Maria’s motivation. A weak 7/10.
P.S.: Charles Dance also appears in another hard-ass authority role. This one’s softer than most, but after Game of Thrones and last year’s The Imitation Game, this is turning into quite a trend of typecasting! I’m optimistic that his performance in the upcoming Childhood’s End miniseries will bring a different energy.