Telling the story of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, Simon Curtis’ Woman In Gold paints a portrait of Nazi-looted art and its journey back into the right hands.
Portrait Of A Ladyby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s a thorny subject, the restoration of Nazi-plundered art to its rightful owners; a seemingly mercenary, unseemly call for reparations not seen since the 1950s. And it’s complicated even more by the fact that many of these prestigious works of art, including paintings by Van Gogh, Gustav Klimt and all manner of French Impressionists, are now on public display in prestigious state museums for all to see. And when, as in the case of the Woman In Gold, it’s the jewel in the crown of one country’s art collection, it’s a request that’s bound to cause one almighty stir. And so it’s perhaps not surprising that, after suing the Austrian government for restitution of the Gustav Klimt painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I in 2000, Maria Altmann was accused of cashing in and profiteering from the Holocaust. But was she really any more than just an ordinary Austrian Jew, forced to flee to the USA after the Austrian Anschluss and whose family fortune, including the now infamous portrait of her aunt – the ‘Woman In Gold’ was stolen from her?
Following the death of her sister, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) comes across some legal papers detailing the family’s possession of Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Determined not to let the Nazis that stole from her family, forced them to leave their homeland and murdered them in extermination camps become heirs to her family fortune, she enlists the help of her down-on-his-luck lawyer nephew Randy (Ryan Reynolds) to wage a legal battle against the Belvedere art museum in Vienna that houses her family’s inheritance. Flying back to Austria for the first time in sixty years, she meets journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), who helps them uncover the loopholes that allow them to confront the Austrian establishment, unwilling to give up their most famous and most profitable painting. But while bringing Austria to justice in its own courts proves extortionate, Randy decides to bring the fight home, embarking on a make-or-break journey that ends up making both of their lives richer.
Director of My Week With Marilyn and a host of BBC television programmes, Simon Curtis’ Woman In Gold is a very elegant composition, divided into two halves with a period dramatisation of the Austrian Anschluss that sketches out Maria’s dramatic flight from the Nazis, and a near-contemporary story of a young, go-getting lawyer risking it big and taking on a European nation state in the courthouse. Add in some well reasoned arguments around the restitution of looted works of art and a narrative arc that sees an all-American boy learn to appreciate his Austrian heritage and love the music of his grandfather Schönberg, and you’ve got a film that can’t fail but to tick all the right boxes. But while Woman In Gold cycles economically through plot, the weight of history and a surprisingly emotional arc, it’s also somehow more than just a by-the-numbers movie of plucky underdogs taking on the establishment and winning.
Perhaps it’s Helen Mirren, who turns in a delicious performance as Maria Altmann, part irrepressible sprite and part worldweary crosspatch – not entirely dissimilar from Dame Judi Dench’s little old lady on a mission in Philomena. Or maybe it’s Ryan Reynolds who, despite the cheap suit and the metal-rimmed glasses, gives an unexpectedly nuanced performance as her eye-rubbing nephew Randy. But mostly, it’s the chemistry between them (as well as the moving scenes of Nazi occupation, fear and flight in its historical sequences) that creates the unexpected emotional impact that transforms Woman In Gold from just another courtroom drama into a common struggle for recognition and redress.
It’s no Klimt masterpiece to be sure – its vision too unambitious and its story too familiarly told. But reclaiming the rights of the long since dispossessed and reforging the United States’ links with the Old World, Woman In Gold provides an intercontinental bridge between the present and the past. Like the eponymous portrait that now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York City, it’s a dazzling reminder of the wealth that left Europe’s shores for a new life on the other side of the Atlantic; an absence felt in Europe that’s made all the more acute by peacetime and the weight of history. And while, as the cinematic retelling of a painting’s provenance, Simon Curtis’ Woman In Gold might not be as sensational as its gold-leaf original, it is nevertheless every bit as precious.
Woman In Gold is released on 10th April 2015 in the UK