Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) is an elderly former refugee who, with the help of her tyro lawyer, takes on the intractable might of the Austrian Government in a protracted legal battle to regain possession of a valuable painting and family heirloom that was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII.
The painting in question is Gustav Klimt’s portrait on canvas entitled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”, which has often been referred to as “the Mona Lisa of Austria”. Adele was Maria’s beloved aunt, and her family was one of the most influential and affluent in Vienna in the 1930s. But when the Nazis came to power they began systematically stripping the Jewish population of their rights and their wealth. After the war, the painting hung proudly in Austria’s Belvedere gallery. With the Austrian government beginning hearings into reparations and repatriation, Maria believes that she has a chance to regain possession of the painting. But the Austrian government is reluctant to relinquish control of the painting, which is now valued somewhere north of $100,000,000. Regaining the painting is not about the money for Maria though, it is more about reclaiming her family’s heritage and forcing the Austrian government to acknowledge the sins of the past.
She engages the help of Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the son of a family friend to help in the massive legal stoush. The grandson of famed Austrian Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, Randol is working for a major San Francisco law firm headed by an underused Charles Dance (wasted in a fairly thankless role), but is given some time off to work pro bono on Maria’s claim. Randol learns more about his own family history as he tries to live up to their expectations and he also reconnects with his past.
Thus begins a long legal battle that takes the pair to Washington and the Supreme Court and finally back to Vienna, where Maria confronts the ghosts of her past. The courtroom scenes are suffused with plenty of drama that make this underdog struggle quite compelling.
The spectre of the Holocaust hangs over the film giving the material a darker edge at times. There are lots of lengthy flashbacks (and some nicely edited archival footage) that take us to Vienna during the rise of the Nazis. We see the treatment of the Jewish people, how they were systematically humiliated and robbed of their pride and stripped of their valuables. A lot if Jewish families fled Austria as the Nazis began their brutal rise to power, but they paid a high personal price for their decision.
There is plenty of tension and suspense as Maria (played as a young woman by Tatiana Maslany) and her husband Fritz (Max Irons) try to flee Austria to find safety and a new home in the United States. These scenes are quite dramatic, and could just provide the basis for a stand alone drama. Cinematographer Ross Emery has shot these scenes in muted, sepia tones and desaturated colours. He creates a strong visual contrast between those scenes set in the past and those set in contemporary times.
Woman in Gold is based on real events, and tells an amazing story that was explored in the documentary Stealing Klimt. The director is Simon Curtis, a television director who made his feature film debut with the superb My Week with Marilyn. There is a strong sentimental streak to the material, although Curtis’ direction is a little prosaic at times.
Mirren as usual is excellent and brings a feisty and imperious quality to her interpretation of Maria. Reynolds has usually been a fairly lightweight performer more comfortable in comedy roles, but here he delivers a more subtle and intelligent performance. He finds the nuances and subtlety required to effectively play the timid lawyer out of his depth. Mirren and Reynolds develop a wonderful rapport and their odd couple dynamic brings some tension to the material as well.
And there is solid support from young German actor Daniel Bruhl (Rush), who plays Hubertus, an investigative reporter looking into those dark events from Austria’s past. And Katie Holmes appears as Pam, Randol’s supportive wife who strokes his ego and regularly builds up his confidence.
Woman in Gold deals with some heavy themes like the search for justice, guilt, cultural legacy, the weight of history, national identity and the upheaval and displacement of Jewish people; but it is also an enjoyable drama driven by another superb display from Mirren, who gives the material a strong focus.
Director: Simon Curtis
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Bruhl
Release Date: 21 May 2015
For more of Greg King’s writing on film, check out his blog at filmreviews.net.au
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television