Woman in Gold (2015)

Justice is priceless

When a filmmaker takes on a project that’s supposedly ‘based on factual events,’ there is a hefty responsibility bestowed upon them, a huge duty of care to piece together a truthful account of a non-fictional occurrence. This is elevated even further when that story has significant historical relevance and blends earnest elements such as art, identity, justice and international law. Add to those ingredients the quest of a remarkable woman, whose family was torn apart by Nazi insurgents, and this undertaking becomes more than just a simple history lesson; it becomes a poignant personal story, and director Simon Curtis’ often compelling Woman in Gold is one such tale. A remarkable account of a woman’s journey to reclaim her rightful heritage — a world famous painting of her aunt plundered by the Nazis — Woman in Gold is a moving and sometimes powerful real-life account of an octogenarian Jewish refugee coming to terms with her past and seeking restitution for what was stolen from her, overcoming great odds with the help of an improbably young lawyer, righting a wrong that had stood for decades.

Set in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Woman in Gold focuses on Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), an elderly Jewish woman residing in the United States — sixty years after having fled from Vienna during World War II — who embarks on an arduous campaign to recover family heirlooms — multiple pieces of artwork from famed Austrian artist Gustav Klimt — seized by the Nazis during the wartime conflict. Among these stolen assets is Gustav Klimt’s celebrated painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I — a picture of Maria’s beloved Aunt Adele — now considered somewhat of a national treasure that had been hanging in the state gallery for eons: an Austrian Mona Lisa of sorts, a stunning picturesque artwork, glistening with gold leaf accents. Believing she had a case for compensation, and with a stirring repressed desire for retribution, Maria gets advice from a young and spirited, though inexperienced, lawyer Randol ‘Randy’ Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the son of fellow Austrian immigrants.

Mirren and Reynolds go for Gold!
Mirren and Reynolds go for Gold!

Having just started a job at a respected law firm, and with a pregnant wife (Katie Holmes) and a newborn child on the horizon, Randy is wary of burdening himself with such an unlikely extracurricular case. However, the lure of the famous Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I painting — the woman in gold — and an increasing sense of duty to his heritage eventually overcome him. Untested but full of gusto, Randy’s investigation reveals that there may have been a systematic cover-up, and denial on a nation-wide scale, in order to keep the celebrated paintings in their homeland Austria. Together with Randy, Maria sets off on an uphill battle to rightfully win back her possessions, which takes the duo all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, forcing Maria to confront difficult truths about her painful past along the way.

As a film, Woman in Gold lives somewhere between The Monuments Men (2014) — a flick centered on an unlikely World War II platoon tasked to rescue art masterpieces stolen by Nazi thieves — and Philomena (2013) — a story of a younger man, a world-weary political journalist, who teams up with an older woman in an attempt to locate the whereabouts of the her lost son, stolen years earlier. While Woman in Gold has somewhat of a slow fidgety start — it does take some time for the narrative to hook viewers in — the picture really picks up steam during its startling flashback scenes, where Tatiana Maslany from televisions Orphan Black (2013) plays the younger Maria. Here, we are provided with glimpses of Maria’s childhood, through her joyful marriage, and her subsequent nerve-racking escape, which sees Maria emigrate to the U.S. with her husband Fritz (Max Irons). It’s within these vivid memories of Maria’s carefree days in Vienna, and her reliving a tragic chapter of her life — the heartache of having everything she held dear ripped away from her — where audiences are truly consumed and engulfed by the narrative; these moments are highly captivating, vastly evoking and effortlessly win patrons over. From here on in, one can’t help but root for Maria as she seeks justice for the wrongs of the past.

Tough times don't last, tough people do!
Tough times don’t last, tough people do!

Thankfully this lengthy seven-year plus legal saga has been significantly trimmed for the big screen. Director Simon Curtis, My Week with Marilyn (2011) — who was introduced to the story of Maria Altmann, and immediately grabbed, through watching a program made for the BBC’s Imagine documentary series — does a sound job in balancing the film’s historical aspects with its ‘present day’ narrative, smoothly shifting between the new world of Los Angeles and the old world of Vienna, while always keeping the two central characters at the story’s core. Woman in Gold is propelled by a tremendously complex plot — audiences follow Maria and Randol as they rendezvous with the Austrian art reclamation committee, meet up with a federal judge (played by the director’s wife, Elizabeth McGovern), visit the U.S. Supreme Court (with Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice), and are finally given an arbitration hearing back in Austria, in an attempt to settle Altmann’s elongated dispute — but this flick is far from being just a simple courtroom drama.

Intellectually coherent and emotionally involving, Woman in Gold chronicles Maria Altmann’s personal quest for justice and search for integrity, with the storyline touching on a handful of topical themes; one such focal point is the role ‘family lineage’ and ‘history’ play in determining one’s identity — the age old question of past versus present — told through the eyes of a woman who had survived a relentless traumatic grief, a suffering that most of us can only imagine. Never losing focus, first time screenwriter, award-winning playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, thankfully manages to keep the characters and their struggle at the center of the narrative, and doesn’t spend too much time dilly-dallying on courtroom politics or the events of the Holocaust, as this is a film about a woman in search of emotional healing from a terrible loss, not a history documentary or a courthouse tribunal. Despite its obvious moral efforts, Campbell’s script isn’t as stirring or captivating as it could have been, sadly standing to be the feature’s weakest link, as the flick is often bogged down by confusing courtroom jargon and laden with run-of-the-mill dialogue, and coupled with its all-too-familiar WWII conventions, the first act may be too middling to sustain general interest and immediately grab people’s attention; but do press on, as the film certainly gains traction in its second and third acts.

'It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack ...'
‘It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack …’

Fortunately, Woman in Gold is driven by two major star performances, both breathing life into this heartfelt story and its versatile characters. Portraying the indomitable, headstrong and feisty Maria Altmann — a Mittel-European grande dame who had spent the majority of her years on American soil — is the legendary Oscar and BAFTA-winning actress Helen Mirren, The Queen (2006). Rendering Altmann with a mother-like quality, Mirren instils a sense of quirky humor and an unpredictable edginess to the matron — along with a heavy Austrian accent — all the while displaying Altmann’s incredible elegance and laid-back power; Helen Mirren’s rendering is a true testament to the legacy of Maria Altmann. Likewise, the baby-faced Ryan Reynolds, Buried (2010), does a wonderful job as Randy Schoenberg, who anchors the present-day story, and maintains a naturally flowing charm and charisma; Reynolds’ organic portrayal brings an audience-friendly boost to the advocate Schoenberg. The odd-couple dimension between Mirren and Reynolds admittedly sells the picture, as the duo share a playful rapport; it’s wonderful seeing a quiet but fierce ‘love’ develop between the pair over the course of film. Portraying another Austrian who was instrumental in aiding Altmann throughout her extensive case is well-known German actor Daniel Brühl, Inglourious Basterds (2009), who takes on the role of campaigning journalist Hubertus Czernin, an investigative reporter delving into the obscured events of Austria’s murky past, adding a genuine European flavor to proceedings; though his small support role doesn’t amount to much.

Shot across three countries — London, Los Angeles and Vienna — and covering three distinct time periods, Woman in Gold looks great, and musters up a natural and authentic worldly atmosphere. Implanting Woman in Gold with a clear visual flavor, cinematographer Ross Emery, The Giver (2014), captures the contemporary scenes in the dramatic vibrancy of modern American cinema juxtaposed against the desaturated visuals of the historical past, gently balancing the film’s vividly distinct time frames. Further complementing the picture is its original score, a strong collaboration between Martin Phipps, Harry Brown (2009), and Oscar winner Hans Zimmer, 12 Years A Slave (2013), who deliver a tender, rousing soundtrack.

Some lawyers never lose their appeal.
Some lawyers never lose their appeal.

A long-winded struggle, which exists in the shadow of World War II’s most appalling atrocities, Woman in Gold is an uplifting and bittersweet film that’s sure to please. Amiably acted and thoughtfully directed, Woman in Gold might be a little cliché and conventional, but its honest and enduring nature will surely win audiences over.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by S-Littner

Woman in Gold is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia