“Woman in Gold” paints a moving portrait
“Schindler’s List” was released in 1993, telling the story of Oskar Schindler, a greedy and selfish German businessman who ultimately does what is right by turning his factory into a safe house for Jews during World War II. Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
While those things are important, they are not what we, the viewers, will remember. What will be remembered is how we felt during and after the movie. It is safe to say that “Schindler’s List” left an indelible impression.
Another emotionally heavy Holocaust film, “The Pianist,” garnered rave reviews in 2002 for its story of a Jewish Polish pianist who managed to survive the chaos and demise of the Warsaw ghetto during the war. Directed by Roman Polanski, himself a Krakow ghetto survivor, “The Pianist” took a selfless approach in not presenting tales of heroes or revenge-seekers but rather of someone who does what is needed to survive.
Enter “Woman in Gold.”
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), an Austrian emigrant living in California who was forced to leave her homeland and her family during World War II, opens the story with the humorously tinged eulogy for her sister, Luise, of whom she says, “If life was a race, then Luise won. If life was a boxing match, then I’m the last one standing.” Maria is left to handle the legal matters and stumbles across some paperwork revealing the details of her family’s stolen artwork.
Among this artwork is a portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. She employs Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson to the famous Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, as her attorney. The two quickly find themselves in the midst of a Holmes-and-Watson-like adventure, taking on the Austrian government for the rights to Adele’s portrait along with several other paintings.
The story behind the “Woman in Gold,” now known as “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” is that the artist, Gustav Klimpt, used a gold-encrusting technique in his portrait of a captivating woman, creating what came to be considered the “Mona Lisa” of Austria. Adele’s portrait was stolen in 1938, along with many other personal items belonging to the family, during the Anschluss, the union of Austria and Germany. The picture landed in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, where it remained until Maria began her fight to reclaim it.
Maria and Randol wage a battle on two fronts: Maria seeks reconciliation for her past and the wrongful death of her family, while Randol is a floundering lawyer attempting to start a family and a career. Randol initially sees her as his potential cash cow, ignoring his own Austrian legacy, but quickly realizes through the many connections to his composer grandfather and through Maria’s telling of Jewish suppression and her own family’s struggle that her battle is also his battle.
Director Simon Curtis and first-time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell rely heavily on the same emotional responses experienced by viewers in the aforementioned Holocaust films, using flashbacks Maria undergoes revealing her traumatic past. Juxtaposing the compelling, historical imagery of the past with the cultureless, identity-searching present (in this instance, 1998), Curtis mimics the same tension between Mirren’s and Reynold’s characters.
While trying to take Reynolds seriously in the role of Randol is at first difficult and seemingly unnatural, he is a good contrast to Mirren’s Maria. Reynolds has moments where his trademark humor shines through and is at times matched by Mirren’s quick wit.
Ultimately, Mirren’s sophistication and acting gravitas steamroll Reynolds, who tries desperately to convince the audience of his deeper ability as an actor. He only manages to keep his head above water—until the end, in which he persuasively delivers a speech to the tribunal deciding the portrait’s fate that is worthy of an audience ovation.
Katie Holmes makes an effort to breathe life into her dead career as Reynolds’ wife, Pam. But Holmes’ character only serves to be a doormat and her performance is forgettable. Conversely, Daniel Brühl’s stellar performance as Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, who aids Maria and Randol during their visits to Vienna, places him a few notches above Reynolds, who admits toward the end of the movie, “We could not have done this without you.” Indeed.
Watching both Maria and Randol evolve over the course of the legal battle to locate the thing that drives both of them to justice is an emotional journey worth taking.“Woman in Gold” will not go down in history alongside movies such “Schindler’s List” or “The Pianist,” but it is certainly noteworthy as another reminder of why we must never forget.