Movie Review: Woman in Gold
Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds bring emotional purity to paint-by-numbers script
Woman in Gold
Four Stars out of five
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Tatiana Maslany, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Max Irons
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Running time: 109 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG 13
By Katherine Monk
When George Clooney set about making The Monuments Men, the forgettable thriller about Adolf Hitler’s pillaging of Europe’s priceless paintings, his big point, delivered through earnest speeches, was about the unique cultural significance of great art.
“You can wipe out an entire generation… burn their homes to the ground and they will find a way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.”
This speech, delivered by Clooney’s alter ego, didn’t really resonate in the context of its own movie because we never developed a rapport with the artwork itself. The ‘great achievements’ were just museum pieces without a personality or a past.
Yet, in the context of Simon Curtis’s Woman in Gold – another film that examines the Nazis unlawful expropriation of masterpieces — the words uttered by Clooney’s character assume all the noble dimensions they were designed to, because unlike The Monuments Men, Woman in Gold reminds us that artwork does not exist in isolation.
The greatest art humanity has ever created is firmly rooted in the human experience, in the inspiration of a creative soul, and the historical instant of its manifestation.
In the case of Gustav Klimt’s Woman in Gold, the 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the work was a personal homage to a patron and personal friend. The piece hung in the family home where Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, would often spend long hours staring at the image of her aunt as the light played off the gold leaf.
For little Maria, the painting wasn’t a seminal piece of art nouveau or a national treasure. It was a picture of her favourite aunt, and as such, more akin to a family member than a commodity.
But of course the Nazis didn’t care about Maria’s family at all: They were Jewish. Their worldly wealth and possessions were taken from them, leaving the Woman in Gold in the hands of national curators who hung the piece in the Austrian State Gallery.
For decades, that’s where it stayed, until the real life Maria Altmann discovered there could be a way to get it back.
It’s at this moment, in the late 1990s, that director Simon Curtis pulls us into the story by introducing us to Altmann as an older woman running a small clothing boutique in Los Angeles.
Played with pitch-perfect aplomb by Helen Mirren, our first brush with Maria is perfectly prickly. Capturing all the uptight, manner-obsessed, politesse of the Old World way of life, Mirren’s whole screen presence feels wonderfully starched.
It’s a testament to her survival, as well as her commendable desire to move on: This isn’t a woman who looks back, which is why she’s initially reluctant to sue.
Yet, urged by friends she consults a young lawyer named Randol Shoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), an idealist now working for a big firm.
From the first moment these two share the screen, they create a sense of something larger than the plot itself because despite their obvious differences, they share common ground.
Not only do they pick up a mother-son pattern of co-dependency, they come from the same place. Randol is also the descendent of well-to-do Austrian Jews, but like Maria, he doesn’t have a latent desire for retribution. It’s only when he realizes how much money the painting is worth (hundreds of millions of dollars) that Randol decides to pay a visit to the cultural gatekeepers in Vienna.
What follows from here is a blow-by-blow re-enactment of the real life legal case that saw Altmann sue the Austrian government for illegal appropriation of Woman in Gold, but as compelling as the courtroom bits may be, it’s really the dynamic between Mirren and Reynolds that allows Woman in Gold to sparkle.
Mirren makes the most of every hard edge and crisp fabric while Reynolds’s normally hard body seems to soften beneath baggy beige windbreakers and khaki Dockers. There’s warmth and humour in every scene they share, so even when this rather unremarkable screenplay hits predictable beats, we’re still charmed.
Moreover, the flashback scenes force us to recognize the epic dimensions of the backstory. With Canada’s own Tatiana Maslany taking on the role of the young Maria Altmann, we see how the family was stripped of its social rank, dehumanized and eventually slated for extermination while the painting was severed from its Jewish past, and hung from the wall like a trophy – a lifeless prize without its bodily context.
Woman in Gold actually makes us feel the emotional connection between the artwork and the owner, allowing the viewer to transcend all the legal details, historical biases and rhetorical arguments about post-war restitution that tend to clutter the frame and drain the drama.
The movie still suffers from a rather predictable paint-by-numbers screenplay, but in the hands of this talented cast lead by Mirren, even the programmed application of pigment creates a memorable portrait.
THE EX-PRESS, April 6, 2015