Emotional journey of restitution in ‘Woman In Gold’
One of the most interesting aspects of the film Woman In Gold, is a subtle thread running through the story about immigrants and their contribution to the richness of American culture. The film’s title comes from a famous painting by acclaimed Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, the subject of a contest of wills between the Austrian government and a determined Austrian Jewish woman, repatriated to Los Angeles, who claims the painting was stolen from her family by the Nazis. But this true story plays out among succeeding generations of Americanized expatriates infused with an Old World sense of community and an American thirst for justice.
A couple of years ago, director Simon Curtis proved he knows how to tell a true story with plenty of juice in his charming My Week With Marilyn. Working here from a script by Alexi Kaye Campbell, he keeps the film’s focus on one remarkable woman, Maria Altmann, portrayed in the film by the great Helen Mirren. Her campaign for restitution is not about the value of the painting (considerable as it is); it’s a way for her to shine the light of truth on a disturbing chapter of Austrian history, while coming to terms at last with her own traumatic past.
In the irresistible opening moments, we see skilled hands preparing and applying tiny sheets of delicate gold leaf to a magnificent portrait. The artist is Klimt, and his subject is Adele Bloch Bauer (Antje Traue), whose portrait will ever after be known as “Woman In Gold.” The scene shifts to 1998 Los Angeles, where 81-year-old Maria (Mirren) is delivering the eulogy for her recently deceased sister—from whom she has just inherited several boxes of family papers and mementos. Leaving the graveside, she casually asks a lifelong family friend if her son is still a lawyer.
Enter E. Randol (Randy) Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). His grandfather was the famed transplanted Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, but Randy is purebred Angelino, trying to get a foothold at a prestigious law firm to support his wife (Katie Holmes) and baby. He’s not interested in the case at first, but he’s grudgingly impressed by Maria’s ironic humor and grit (a widow, she still operates her own chic dress shop).
When she tells him the subject of the painting was her “Aunt Adele,” commissioned by her uncle, and that the two families lived together in Vienna until the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, Randy researches the recent formation of the Restitution Committee in Vienna (supposedly to make reparations, although he thinks it’s mostly for publicity). He decides to go to Vienna to find the will in which Adele allegedly donated the Klimt painting and others to the Belvedere Museum. And while Maria is not eager to confront the ghosts of her past, she decides to go with him for the sake of her beloved aunt.
Their trip to Vienna (aided by investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl) entwines with flashbacks to Maria’s past. Scenes from her happy girlhood and wedding amid Vienna’s glitterati play against the Nazi invasion of their city and home, her wrenching departure from her parents, and her harrowing escape from the city as a new bride with her opera-singer husband, Fritz (Max Irons). Maria’s present-day adversaries include representatives from the Belvedere and the Austrian government, who don’t want “The Mona Lisa of Vienna” to go elsewhere. But they lose some of their smug certainty, when, back in the States, Randy finds a loophole through which to sue the Republic of Austria in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The filmmakers resort to occasional Hallmark moments (some overly cute, feisty dialogue for Maria; Randy’s predictable meltdown when Maria wants to give up). But the movie mostly succeeds as a fascinating glimpse into 20th-century Viennese art and culture. It also ponders the ways in which family and community ties (the New York gallery where the painting ends up is owned by the son of another Austrian expat, cosmetics giant Estée Lauder), span diverse cultures and generations.
WOMAN IN GOLD
*** (out of four)
With Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, and Tatiana Maslany. Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Directed by Simon Curtis. A Weinstein Company release. Rated PG-13. 109 minutes. PHOTO: Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds in Simon Curtis’ ‘Woman in Gold’.