During World War II, the painting The Woman in Gold by renowned painter Gustav Klimt was illegally taken from the home of Adele Bloch-Bauer by the Nazis, and would eventually end up in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. It was a practice that went on throughout the war, when many Jewish homes were ransacked, their valuables taken and given to Nazi party members.
The Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) tells the true story of Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren), who in 1998, launched a legal campaign against the Austrian government for the return of the painting of her Aunt Adele, to its rightful owner.
The film itself is adequate, but could have done with a little more depth into the reason Altmann was so adamant that the Austrian Government deliver the painting back to her. But perhaps it is this kind of “can of worms” story that is so hard to portray properly in the space of an hour and 40 minutes, as it relates to everything from Austria’s disgraceful Nazi past to justice for those who suffered during the Holocaust.
There was nothing bad about Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Maria Altmann. She was headstrong and feisty, and one presumes that these are the characteristics you would possess if you were an Austrian refugee, forced to flee your home due to persecution from the reigning government. At times, she is a bit too “old fussy lady”, although this might just be creative license Curtis and Mirren agreed to take together. In one scene, Maria meets with her lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), takes the glasses off his face and wipes them clean. “There”, she pronounces matter-of-factly, “Now you can see better”. A bit schmaltzy, but not enough to put you off the whole movie.
There was also nothing wrong with Tatiana Maslany’s portrayal of the younger Maria. The scenes where Maria and her husband are fleeing for their lives, leaving Vienna, and, more importantly, her parents, behind, are moving and fraught with all the danger and heartbreak you may already know about that period in history. Why isn’t Tatiana Maslany in more than just Orphan Black? About 99% of her lines in this film were also in German, so kudos to her for pulling that off.
On the whole, there also isn’t anything distinctly wrong with Ryan Reynolds as Maria’s lawyer Randol Schoenberg. Randol is also of Austrian heritage (the real story is that Randol’s mother and Maria are old family friends from their days in Vienna), and therefore shares that link with Maria. Reynolds, whether inadvertently or not, plays Schoenberg like he is a deer in headlights at times, bewildered by the enormity of the task ahead but knowing that he has a duty to his client, his family and ultimately his heritage to make things right. Reynolds depicts Schoenberg as someone who finally comes to terms with the fact that Maria’s fight is his fight, too.
But this story can’t be done suitably in the amount of time movies are usually shown in. In one scene, Maria is talking to Randol about the Belvedere Gallery’s refusal to recognise that the painting of her aunt was acquired illegally, and tells him, “They were never the victims. They threw flowers on the ground and welcomed the Nazis with open arms”. It’s this scene, coupled with the many flashback scenes of Viennese Jews being openly victimised, that are at the heart of this story.
What Maria Altmann and Randol Schoenberg did for art restitution highlights so much more than just how Nazis were allowed to loot homes. It opens up a “can of worms” on a past that many don’t understand or want to acknowledge. The argument against restoring The Woman in Gold to Maria was that the painting was “like the Mona Lisa of Austria”, and allowing it to leave the Belvedere Gallery would deny it its spotlight in the Austrian art world. But what’s the price of justice? It’s this question that you wish the film had delved into just a little bit more.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 109 minutes
Woman In Gold is screening in Australian cinemas now through Roadshow Films