By Matthew E. Milliken
April 21, 2015
The new feature film Woman in Gold poignantly tells the true story of a World War II refugee and her lawyer who sue to recover a famous portrait of her aunt decades after it was confiscated by Nazis.
The woman at the heart of the story is Maria Altmann, the daughter of a prominent Austrian Jewish family. Simon Curtis and Alexi Kaye Campbell — it’s the second full-length movie feature directing credit for Curtis, following My Week with Marilyn and numerous TV movies, and the first writing credit of any kind for Campbell — intertwine scenes from Altmann’s earlier life in Vienna with those of Altmann and her attorney, new father Randy Schoenberg.
The titular woman in gold is Adele Bloch-Bauer, whom famed artist Gustav Klimt painted in 1907 in what became an iconic work. As we learn, even this apt and seemingly innocuous title has political implications. (Klimt, incidentally, also painted a second portrait of Adele as well as additional works for the Bloch-Bauers.) The legal battle begins in 1998 when, after the death of Maria’s older sister, Luise, the younger woman finds letters from the late 1940s that her sibling had exchanged with an Austrian lawyer in a futile attempt to recover stolen family property.
Altmann, who’s played in the modern-day narrative by Helen Mirren, engages a son’s friend, Randol Schoenberg. The descendant of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg (or Schönberg), Randy at times defies not only his supervisor at the prestigious law firm that he recently joined but also his pesky client. His interest in Altmann’s case initially stems from the value of her stolen family heritage — a web search reveals that Klimt’s work could be worth more than $100 million — but ultimately becomes deeper.
The quest leads from a Los Angeles courtroom presided over by a judge played by Elizabeth McGovern to the U.S. Supreme Court, where an avuncular Chief Justice William Rehnquist (an uncredited Jonathan Pryce) excuses an embarrassing verbal fumble by Schoenberg. There are also multiple excursions to Austria, where Schoenberg and Altmann face a decidedly mixed reception.
Despite all this, the character of Schoenberg, amiably played by Ryan Reynolds, remains a bit of a blank. The same is true of his wife, Pam, whose support for Randy fluctuates based on…well, whatever the plot requires to create dramatic tension, evidently. The reliably excellent Charles Dance, portraying Schoenberg’s boss, cuts a more memorable figure in his small role than either Reynolds or Katie Holmes, who plays his on-screen spouse.
Woman in Gold might not be a movie without its contemporary narrative. It certainly wouldn’t be a good movie without its scenes from the prelude to World War II, in which Tatiana Maslany takes center stage as a 20-something Maria. On the night of her marriage to Fritz Altmann (Max Irons), the bride’s uncle, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, urgently confers with her father, Gustav Bloch-Bauer. Ferdinand, who is both childless and widowed, implores Gustav to depart Austria, which has just agreed to be annexed by Nazi Germany. But Gustav, Maria and Fritz all decline to leave their palatial Viennese apartment suite.
This proves almost immediately to be a mistake. Germany soon restricts most emigration from Austria, which is closely followed by persecution of Jews. When Ferdinand is accused in absentia of tax evasion, a Nazi officer is stationed inside the Bloch-Bauers’ apartments, charged with monitoring every move by Gustav, Therese (his wife; Luise and Maria’s mother), Maria and Fritz. The home is stripped of most of its objets d’art and other items of value, including Gustav’s beloved cello. The quartet find themselves trapped behind enemy lines in the very place that only months before had been a beloved and accommodating home.
What’s perhaps most striking about Woman in Gold’s portrayal of the German annexation is that many (although not all) ordinary Austrians were quite enthusiastic about the Nazi program of dehumanizing and humiliating Jews. This mindset resonates more than a half a century later, when the Austrian state-controlled museum that possesses Adele’s portrait adamantly refuses to acknowledge that it was stolen.
Maria escapes the Nazis — I won’t share any details in order to avoid spoilers — but at no small price. In the modern day, her quest for restitution often seems like a quixotic one. It is also at times a painful and costly one, requiring her, for instance, to break her vow never to return to Austria.
Woman in Gold’s modern-day story reminded me of a cop buddy movie, wherein two mismatched partners learn to work with one another in order to fight a great injustice. The misunderstandings, conflicts and light comic patter seem lifted straight from Lethal Weapon or another genre entry. But the movie also followed another familiar Hollywood template: That of a film in which a scarred individual must confront a painful episode from her past in order to find healing and happiness.
This rather hackneyed premise reminded me of the chief paradigm of some schools of psychotherapy, wherein mental health is often restored by addressing unfinished business. In fact, Woman in Gold all but makes this notion explicit in a moving scene in which Altmann’s chief ally, a reporter named Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), explains why he’s helping her undo some of the Nazis’ crimes.
It sounds a bit corny, and maybe it is. And yet, despite the film’s missteps, I found Woman in Gold genuinely moving; I even cried during a scene near the end in which some characters must make their farewells.
We’ll be hearing more about Woman in Gold in 2016 come awards season. Mirren is a shoo-in for a best actress nomination, and supporting actress Maslany and screenwriter Campbell may be candidates in their respective categories. But that’s not the best reason to see this movie. Instead, go because Woman in Gold explores the emotional knot at the heart of a legal battle and makes the journey relatable and enjoyable for its viewers.