Powered by a fascinating real-life story and compelling performances from an all-star cast, Woman in Gold is one of the year’s finest so far. In its chronicling of the incredible David-and-Goliath-like legal battle between Austrian World War II survivor Maria Altmann and the government of her home country for possession of art stolen from her family by the Nazis, it achieves a difficult balance of tone, and manages to present a very complex case and the issues involved in it in a way that’s relatable, genuine, and inspiring.
In 1998 Los Angeles, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), who as a young woman escaped from her native Austria to America with her husband as the country was being annexed by Nazi Germany, comes across letters in the possession of her recently-deceased sister that seem to point to a way for their family to reclaim precious art taken from them when the Nazis marched into Austria in March, 1938. She shows the letters to a young and struggling attorney, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) who himself has ties to Austria thanks to his great-grandfather, famed music composer and innovator Arnold Schönberg. Randy at first agrees to meet with Maria as a family favor, but becomes a great deal more interested in taking the case for himself and the firm he’s just been hired by once he learns that one of the artworks in question, a piece that once hung in the home of Maria’s uncle, is none other than “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”, painted by Vienna Secession founder and 20th Century master painter Gustav Klimt, an Austrian national treasure valued at the time in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
As Austria was at the time making an effort at restitution toward those victimized by the Nazis and World War II, Randy agrees to take the case, and he along with Maria travel to Vienna in order to set the legal wheels in motion. Once there, they get help from an investigative reporter, Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), but his help is the only assistance they get, as they discover that despite the validity of their case and the evidence in their possession, the Austrian government has no intention of letting the Klimt painting or any of the other works claimed by Maria leave the Belvedere, their national gallery. Their intransigence, rooted in part by the unwillingness to admit they benefited from the original theft of the art by the Nazis and were thus complicit in the victimization of a wealthy Jewish Austrian family, begins a legal struggle that’s eventually fought in both Austria and the U.S. courts. It also forces Maria into a deeply personal battle of her own, as she’s forced to confront the ghosts of the life she thought she’d left behind forever by returning to the country she swore she’d never return to. It becomes personal for Randy, as well, as for the first time he gives real thought and reflection to the struggles of his forebears, who also fled Austria to avoid persecution at the hands of the Third Reich, and comes to see Maria’s fight as one for nothing less than true justice for them both.
Produced by BBC Films and directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), Woman in Gold works as well as it does because it doesn’t get mired in the legal wranglings of Maria Altmann’s incredible story, and instead focuses on the very human stories found there. The script, penned by playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell in his first screenwriting effort, very efficiently and neatly deals with the legal roads and obstacles Maria and Randy must traverse in order to keep their fight going, but its true power lies in how it explores the motivations behind the characters to keep that fight going as the years pass and take a toll on their resolve.
In terms of Maria and the emotions she grapples with throughout the long process, audiences learn much about what informs her responses through the film’s many flashbacks to 1938, to the life of the young Maria, whose favorite aunt was the subject of Klimt’s painting in 1907, and whose happiness as a young woman wedded to opera singer Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann in 1937 was quickly shattered, along with the lives of thousands of Jewish Austrians, by the arrival of the Nazis. The depictions of scenes from that harrowing time, including the humiliation suffered by Jews in Vienna as the Nazis were welcomed with open arms and flowers tossed in their direction, and Maria and Fritz’s dramatic escape, are among the film’s most riveting, but they also serve as powerful insight into Maria’s fear of returning to Austria and deep-seated anger toward the nation of her birth and its people, who at the time were still very much playing the victim in regards to their involvement in the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
All of this is brought to life by yet another unforgettable performance by Dame Helen Mirren (honestly, when isn’t she unforgettable in a film role?) and an understated but still passionate turn by Ryan Reynolds, but also benefits greatly from a powerful performance by Tatiana Maslany, star of TV’s “Orphan Black”, who carries much of the weight of the film’s flashbacks while portraying the young Maria. German actor Daniel Brühl, who wowed audiences in 2013 with his portrayal of Austrian race car prodigy Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s RUSH and here called upon again to portray a real-life figure of Austrian descent, also delivers fine work in the time he’s given on screen, as does the surprisingly high profile array of talent brought in for scant minutes of screen time, including Katie Holmes, Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”), Elizabeth McGovern (“Downton Abbey”), and Jonathan Pryce. Though audiences might want to see more of the characters these stars bring to life on screen as the movie runs its course, there’s no sense that the talent is at all wasted with what we are given. They make their scenes all the more memorable, and add to the quality of the film.
What may also surprise audiences is just how many opportunities there are in Woman in Gold for moments of humor and lightness in what could have otherwise been a very heavy-handed and dull legal procedural of a film. It’s the script and director Simon Curtis’s light touch at just the right moments that helps keep the film from getting lost in melodrama and sanctimony. There’s a great deal of “odd couple” humor injected into scenes shared by the plucky Maria and the often reserved and unassuming Randy, the easy charm of which only serves to make the film’s central drama all the more engaging.
With that in mind, and as the time draws nearer for summer and all its big-budgeted bombast and lack of subtlety, films with this kind of lighter, more grounded approach need to be seen and appreciated before they’re left in the dust by audiences seeking spectacle and thrills. Put Woman in Gold on your list of “must-sees” while you can. It deserves to be there.
Score: 4 out of 5
Woman in Gold
Starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jonathan Pryce. Directed by Simon Curtis.
Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language.