Woman in Gold is a terrific movie, much better than I expected. It reminded my wife of The King’s Speech; it reminded me of Philomena, and it’s a movie that fits nicely with either of those equally terrific films. Only The King’s Speech won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, and Philomena was nominated for both. Woman in Gold, meanwhile gets the obscurity of an April release, no Oscar buzz, a lower-than-deserved Rottentomatoes score, and gets to battle Furious 7 for audience share. Ah, the vagaries of Hollywood release strategies! Philomena, based on a true story, starred Judi Dench as an elderly woman coming to terms with her past, helped by an initially-reluctant-but-increasingly-engaged younger male cohort; Woman in Gold, likewise historically based, stars Helen Mirren as ditto, and Ryan Reynolds as ditto. They’re both approximately twelve billion times better movies than Furious 7. I repeat: ah, the vagaries!
Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jew who escaped Vienna in the midst of the Anschluss. From a well-to-do, well connected family; her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer was the model for the Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold. Another relation was the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Maria now lives in California, and runs a small dress shop. When her sister dies, she finds old letters that convince her that the Austrian ownership of the Klimt painting is of dubious legality. She asks a distant nephew, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), an attorney, to research the case. He becomes increasingly convinced that her case has merit, and pursues it, first to the US Supreme Court (which rules that the Austrian government can legitimately be sued in American courts), and then to Austria, where he and his client agree to binding arbitration.
The legal machinations are fascinating. No one questioned that the painting was owned by Adele Bloch Bauer, then retained after her death by the Bloch Bauer family, then subsequently stolen by the Nazis when they took over. The Austrian government claimed that Adele’s will bequeathed the painting to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. Schoenberg’s research discovered that the will was not legally valid, that the painting was actually left to her husband, and subsequently to the family.
But it’s an incredibly famous painting, the Austrian Mona Lisa, a painting featured on post cards and coffee mugs and refrigerator magnets. The Austrian Cultural Ministry, of course, wanted to return stolen Nazi art to its original owners. Up to a point. But come on. Not the Woman in Gold.
Mirren is tremendous as Altmann, at times peppery and opinionated, at times profoundly unwilling to confront her own tragic past. We also see why her past haunts her. At least a third of the movie is told in flashback, as we see her as a young married woman during the Nazi takeover. That takeover was hardly resisted at all, and as anti-Semitic brutality grew, it was generally cheered by the majority of Austrians. The young Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, the wonderful Canadian actress who is so spectacular in the BBC America series Orphan Black. All the scenes involving her were riveting.
I thought the flashbacks were the best part of the picture. I was equally taken with a pivotal character, Hubertus Czernin (German actor Daniel Brühl). Czernin is an Austrian journalist who helps Maria and Randol in their fight against the Austrian cultural authorities. As he points out, Austria is still engaged in a battle to define itself culturally. Hitler was Austrian, raised in the anti-Semitic sinkhole that was Austrian society before the First World War. The Austrians hardly fought the Nazi takeover at all, and were willing participants in the lethal persecutions of Austria’s Jews. Obviously, post WWII Austrians would much prefer to forget that any of that was true. Not just older Austrians, but Czernin’s own generation resents having the past dredged up against.
Go to Paris, and you expect post cards to feature the Eiffel Tower; go to the Louvre, and post cards will feature Mona Lisa. In Austria, in the 1990s, the Woman in Gold had much of that same cultural allure and prominence. The idea that that painting had been stolen by Nazis, that it represented the most shameful part of Austria’s past, and that its rightful owner wanted it removed from the most important museum in Vienna and sold to Americans was a decidedly unwelcome one. No wonder they fought Maria so hard.
I’ve generally thought of Ryan Reynolds as something of a lightweight actor. Not in this film. Initially, a little bland, he becomes more and more engaged in the case, more and more invested in his own past. The fact that he’s a Schoenberg struck me as particularly apt. Arnold Schoenberg’s music is, of course, difficult to appreciate the first time you hear it. But the twelve tone approach he created rewards those listeners willing to put the time in. The more you listen to it, the more it affects you, and in the end, what initially seemed like an academic exercise becomes closer to an agonized lament, for a time he could see was ending in violence and death. At one point, Randol and Czernin go to a concert, and hear a Schoenberg piece; my one complaint about the movie is that we don’t get to hear more of it.
Anyway, don’t let this movie slip past you. It may not be in town for long; catch it while it is. It’s really powerful, really well done. Beautifully written and acted and photographed and edited; see it, please.