Woman in Gold contains some bits of schmaltz, but these were minor blemishes compared to the novelty of a film that depicts a woman’s passionate relationship to a piece of art over the course of her lifetime.
By Helen Epstein
I read so many sneering, snarky reviews of Woman in Gold that I almost didn’t go see it. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first screenplay was slammed for “speechy dialogue;” director Simon Curtis for “garish good taste;” the Weinstein Company for “manufactured sentiment;” leading actors Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds were described as “a partnership the world wasn’t waiting for” by critics from the Guardian to the Hollywood Reporter.
In case you missed the story of the two decade-long struggle over the title painting’s ownership, the Woman in Gold is the extraordinary Klimt portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The Nazis seized it from the family during the second world war. Austrian museum curators renamed the painting and then hung it in the Belevedere Gallery of Vienna. In the 1990s Adele’s favorite niece, Maria Altmann (born in Vienna, resident of Los Angeles) began her efforts to reclaim it.
This story is part of a far larger narrative about the reparation and restitution of property; not only that of European Jews whose homes were looted by Nazis, but of other displaced populations in Europe and elsewhere. The drama generated by the personalities engaged, the legalities of each case, the national cultures and ethics that come into play are fascinating, but extremely hard to compress into a 100-minute film.
As in so many “based on a true story” movies these days, there are multiple demands on the film-maker: fidelity to the facts of the story vs. good drama chief among them. I thought that the movie Selma favored fidelity to the facts over dramatic tension, for example. Then there is the question of audience. Should the film assume viewers already know something of the story from the news, from a book, or from their own personal experiences of theft and restitution? (I’m in the latter group because my father’s home in Czechoslovakia was seized, in turn, by Nazis and Communists, and now houses a regional museum). Or do the film-makers start from scratch? How much do audiences have to be insiders to understand the characters? Believe in them?
In the case of Woman in Gold, most reviewers thought the film’s depiction of the Nazi Anshluss of Austria was exaggerated, although some scenes were vitually copies of newsreel footage. Nor did they buy the depiction of “sinisterly obstructive” Austrian bureaucrats, even though anyone experienced with rigid European bureaucracy will easily recognize the ‘legal’ game playing as genuine. Some reviewers took issue with the issue of the morality of private ownership of works of art instead of focusing on this particular instance of theft. All the reviewers missed the significance of the unusual stories of the two characters at the film’s center: Maria Altmann is played by three actresses as the figure develops from a serious young child to a happy young bride and then a caustic senior; and Randy Schoenberg, who changes from an American indifferent to his family history to a man possessed by it.
Helen Mirren’s portrayal of Maria Altmann, her bearing, her dress, and her Viennese-accented English struck me as perfect. While many reviewers dismissed Altmann as “fussy” and “eccentric,” she seemed to me to be a fairly typical example of Viennese Jewish refugees I knew as a child in Manhattan. And rather than the movie being a star vehicle for this wonderful actress, I thought it showcased the two actresses playing Maria Altmann at younger stages. Critics found Ryan Reynolds miscast as the semi-nerdy Jewish Californian Randy Schoenberg. He is grandson of two well-known Viennese composers whose anxious mother fixes him up with Maria Altmann as a legal client. Unencumbered by any familiarity with his previous work, I found Reynolds not only persuasive but moving.
So far as the cultural context goes, the film does a reasonable job of providing background on some of the ways Austrians have begun to examine their Nazi past. It features the fine actor Daniel Brühl as the late Hubertus Czernin, the real-life young Austran investigative journalist who helped Schoenberg and Altmann locate the documents (tucked deep in Austrian archives) that won their case. It also suggests the complexities of both the Austrian and American legal frameworks in which Schoenberg pursues the case.
This is quite a feat for any film. Woman in Gold not only packs in an enormous amount of information, but also showcases an excellent cast of European and American supporting players. Katie Holmes is believable as Randy’s loyal wife; Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce have lovely cameos, the latter as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist; and the members of the Bloch-Bauer family as well as Maria’s operatic baritone fiancé (Max Irons) are impeccable.
There are a few bits of schmaltz I could have done without, but these were minor blemishes compared to the novelty of a film that depicts a woman’s passionate relationship to a piece of art over the course of her lifetime. Go see it and let us know what you think.
Helen Epstein’s books can be found at Plunkett Lake Press.