Mark Reviews Movies

Woman in Gold


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Simon Curtis

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some thematic elements and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:49

Release Date: 4/1/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 31, 2015

It often feels as if movies based on true stories simply coast on that fact. They go through the motions of events and provide characters who summarize whatever point is intended to be garnered. If the central conflict is too "simple," these movies invent other conflicts that feel too manufactured to be real, and we're supposed to feel inspired by the movie because it's "based on a true story."

Woman in Gold doesn't coast. It doesn't settle for the obvious. It bluntly tells us its point, of course, but the film really doesn't need to do so. The significance of this story is clear once the basics have been established, yet the film actually wants to delve into it a bit deeper. It finds conflict by uncovering further matters of consequence that we otherwise might have overlooked.

This is the story of two people who fight against an unjust system, but it is also an examination of that system. The injustice has its roots in an old cultural attitude that seemed to have been defeated along with Nazism at the end of World War II. The film argues that it persists in ways that seem rather innocent or that are hidden under a banner of national pride. Obviously, a legal fight over a painting is nowhere near the level of rabid anti-Semitism and unchecked jingoism that spread through parts of Europe before and during the Second World War, but those illogical feelings have a lot to do with this story. Director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell see it lurking just beneath the surface of this story, and they aren't afraid to expose it.

The sins and crimes of the past have become a subject of silence in the film's present. This isn't just a battle over who has the legal right to a painting worth more than a $100 million. This is a fight to show that people would rather forget or be willfully ignorant of the past and to prove that, in that forgetting or ignorance, there is no possible means of atonement or justice.

The story covers the seven-year legal fight between Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), with the help of her untested attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), and the government of Austria over a collection of paintings by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. The most precious of these works—to both Maria and Austria—is the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, an ornate portrait of Maria's aunt painted with oils and ornamented with sheets of gold adhered to the canvas.

At the start of the film's present-day story, the painting holds a place of honor in the Austrian State Gallery, where it is widely regarded as "the Mona Lisa of Austria." The original title had been replaced with—and, in the museum, remains—the more generic moniker Woman in Gold, as a means of erasing the Jewish heritage of the painting's subject.

Throughout the present-day narrative, the film provides flashbacks of the creation of the painting, a younger Maria's (Tatiana Maslany) life with her well-to-do family in Vienna, and the results of the occupation of Nazi Germany, which is met with cheering crowds of Austrian citizens throwing roses in the path of German soldiers. Maria sees children yelling approval of soldiers cutting the facial hair of Orthodox Jews. She witnesses Jewish citizens forced to clean sidewalks with acid and Jewish storeowners made to label their businesses with the owners' ethnicity.

Soldiers steal her family's possessions, including the Klimt paintings. The one of her aunt ends up with a high-ranking Nazi official, and a landscape painting winds up adorning Hitler's retreat home.

All of this is a prelude to the contemporary state of the country, where Maria and Randol attempt to convince a newly formed committee on art reclamation that the stolen Klimt paintings are rightfully and legally hers. The progression of this legal fight is fascinating in its own right, and Campbell's screenplay knows it.

There are discussions of wills, backroom negotiations, and courtroom scenes as the case makes its way from Austria to United States federal court and all the way to the Supreme Court. They're never dull. There's intrinsic novelty to this case, in which an American citizen sued a foreign nation, and everything about it—from the legal precedent to the way and reason that the U.S. government worries about the potential fallout—is well-defined by Campbell. This is a film that genuinely cares about the process that drives its story.

It's also concerned with the cultural attitude within Austria—and, as we come to realize by the end, throughout Europe—that makes this process a necessity. It's a staunch position of denial.

The art reclamation committee refuses to consider documents that would go against the case of keeping the paintings in Austria and the context of documents that would work in favor of Austria's ownership of the artwork. A confrontation with a random man, who asserts that "Not everything is about the Holocaust," tells us that there are still some who cling to old, bigoted views. An investigative reporter (Daniel Brühl), who serves as a beacon of optimism amidst the cynicism, helps Maria and Randol navigate the politics of the country as a means to atone for the sins of his father, while Randol starts to find himself caring about his cultural heritage in a way that he hasn't in the past (Reynolds is quite good as a man whose growing conscience comes close to obsession).

What we get here is a film that understands that context matters. The vital context of Woman in Gold is the past's effect on the present, the injustice of forgetting, and the way certain negative viewpoints evolve into things that seem innocuous but are still harmful. That's the story that matters here.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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