“Woman in Gold” Review: A Lightweight Treatment of a Weighty Dilemma
Most polities use art to further their agendas, and many ban or destroy art that they deem prejudicial to the same. The Third Reich is an extreme case in history, as it so often is; the Nazi attitude toward art was altogether more surreal and exploitative than the norm, even for a totalitarian government. Hitler’s followers lambasted art they considered degenerate, but in a voyeuristic way, confiscating it and displaying it in a traveling gallery they called Degenerate Art. In a dark irony, it was one of the best modern art exhibitions of the first half of the 20th century. What Nazi “culture” officials did afterward illustrates their hypocritical, contradictory approach toward art generally: some of the works they burned, some they sold, and some they stole.
One “degenerate” work the Nazis took from the walls of their victims was Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I, a decadent oil painting swathed in gold leaf. It was painted in Austria in 1907 and depicts a young woman from one of the leading Jewish families of Vienna. Adele herself died childless before the Nazis came to power. Some members of her family, like her niece Maria Altmann, escaped and eventually settled in America. Others remained behind and perished under Nazi rule.
When a movie has occasion to deliver a line like “They died in a death camp,” it taps into an indelible and solemn fact of history. A lackluster script does not acquire greatness by virtue of its association with serious content, but neither can it wholly submerge the raw emotion of a powerful truth. This is the ambivalent position of Woman in Gold. Its title comes from the Nazi’s intentionally vague name for Klimt’s painting, given to it to disguise its affiliation with a Jewish heiress. The movie has moments of successful contact with the tragedies of the past and the injustices of the present, but these are outnumbered by hackneyed movie moments on which director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell unnecessarily rely.
Helen Mirren is the well-chosen vehicle for both the good and the not-so-good material that Curtis and Campbell provide. As the elderly Maria Altmann fighting for the restitution of her aunt’s portrait from the Austrian State Gallery in the 1990s, Mirren acts with her chin and her voice. The former she holds firm, communicating Maria’s aristocratic upbringing and the determination that sustained her through times of personal and geopolitical upheaval. The latter is a leavening of Mirren’s own English accent with the Austrian inflection of Maria. Perhaps the English sounds are not meant to remain at all, but they have some reason to: Maria, we are told, made the conscious decision to cease speaking German, the language of her youth, the language of her family’s enemies, and the blend that issues from Mirren suggests how thoroughly Maria broke with the past.
On the other hand, the things Mirren’s Maria says owe less to any real individual and more to the Sassy Older Woman archetype that audiences seem to crave. I mean no disrespect to Maggie Smith, who plays that role so perfectly on Downton Abbey, when I say that Mirren can do more and Woman in Gold should have asked more of her. It’s bad enough when she is reduced to cutesy aphorisms. It’s worse when the jokes do not derive from, or even make sense for, her character, as when she makes the obvious pun out of the Austrian name Grimschitts. Maria grew up around names like that, and surely could not have been as shocked or amused by it as Campbell imagines her to be.
It must have been too tempting a joke for Campbell to pass up, because “grim shits” suits his characterization of the Austrian museum and government officials who resist Maria’s quest for restitution. Although their real-life counterparts did fight to keep the Klimt – “the Mona Lisa of Austria” – in Vienna, it is hard to believe that the real defendants in the Klimt case were such sneering villains. Even they must have had some sympathy, on a simple human level, for the little old Jewish lady asking them to right an egregious historical wrong.
Except, was the painting’s presence in the Austrian State Museum actually wrong? This is a surprisingly complicated question, and the movie considers it with some grace. Adele, who sat for the portrait, expressed in writing her wish that the painting go to the museum in Vienna upon her and her husband’s deaths. But her husband was the actual owner of the painting, and his will left everything to his heirs, which by the 1990s meant his niece Maria. Before he died, the Nazis stole the painting from his home, and after their defeat it wound up in the museum after all. Would Adele still have wanted the painting to hang there if she had known how it got there? Woman in Gold wants us to believe that she would not. I’m not entirely convinced.
Just as the situation is out of Adele’s hands, it is increasingly out of Maria’s as the film progresses. More and more, the focus shifts to her young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds. Randy likes to take risks, and in the movie he rides a series of long-shot gambles from California to the Supreme Court to Vienna. He has a cute baby and a sunny, supportive-to-a-fault wife (she takes time out from childbirth to help him with his shirt and tie and comfort him about the case!) played by Katie Holmes. The movie takes pains to establish that Randy’s grandfather was the composer Arnold Schoenberg and his father a noted jurist, and that some of his family died in the Holocaust, but asks us to believe that he never gave his family history any serious thought until he reluctantly took on Maria’s case. The script awkwardly forces him, as it forces Maria, into a tiny pigeonhole: a brash, youthful attorney butting up against a stately, wise survivor. The way they clash is supposed to be cute and funny, but it’s tired and predictable.
Although Randy gets too much attention at the expense of Maria, Woman in Gold resists becoming a courtroom drama. It might easily have gone that route, for better or for worse, since Maria’s case went through several rounds of judicial hearings and decisions and reversals and arbitration. But in the movie, the courtroom scenes come and go with laudable efficiency. Jonathan Pryce and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern deliver strong opinions from the bench and the story moves on.
Instead of searching for drama in courtroom theatrics, the movie offers a series of flashbacks to Maria’s childhood and young adulthood in prewar Vienna. These are sepia-tinged scenes of elegant parties that slowly give way to Nazi horror. The actress who plays the younger Maria, Tatiana Maslany, turns in a restrained, naturalistic performance a cut above anything in Mirren and Reynolds’ scenes. The script still places her in movie-style peril on the streets of Vienna and on an airport tarmac, but it also provides her with sincere and moving moments of intimacy with her aunt, her parents, and her other relations.
In the end, the movie is good enough to see. But it is not as good as it should be; it owed more to Klimt, to Adele, to Maria, to Randy, and to the Austrian people. Movies that take on weighty subjects have an implicit responsibility to do them justice, and Woman in Gold is just too lightweight.
A Flickchart-style set of matches will tell us how the film measures up against similar efforts.
Woman in Gold vs. Julie & Julia
Julie & Julia is another movie that intersperses contemporary events with past events, and another case in which the past ones work better than the present ones. Nora Ephron’s script is cleverer and funnier than Woman in Gold’s, but choosing between Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep is a Sophie’s choice. I always enjoy Amy Adams, but Tatiana Maslany is a revelation. It’s a close call, but Julie & Julia hits more of the emotional and comedic notes it aims for.
Woman in Gold vs. Philomena
One of 2013’s Best Picture nominees, Philomena is a based-on-a-true-story of an older woman who seeks the help of a young man to find something she’s lost. In her case, it’s not a painting, but a family member. Some critics objected to the script’s cutesy use of Judi Dench, which is also a problem in Woman in Gold, but I cannot speak on the matter with authority because I was out of the country when Philomena was in theaters, and I haven’t caught up with it yet. The matchup is too thematically appropriate to ignore, but you’ll have to tell me which movie wins.
Woman in Gold vs. Breaker Morant
A matchup out of left field, you say? I should have done Girl with a Pearl Earring, you say? Maybe even The Sound of Music, which is also about an Austrian named Maria and is set during the Anschluss? Wait, I can explain! The way Woman in Gold fails to convince me that Adele’s wishes are invalid because of historical events about which she knew nothing reminds me of how Breaker Morant fails to convince me that three accused Australian war criminals were railroaded during the Boer War. The stronger case, I think, is that they got the justice they deserved. Nevertheless, it’s a great movie, visually beautiful, exceptionally acted, and smartly written. Watch it, if you haven’t. It easily beats the otherwise completely-unrelated Woman in Gold.