The Golden Girl
The Helen Mirrens of the film world can often elevate whatsoever vehicle. Woman in Gold is passable even without her in spite of a known-in-advance or at least predictable ending surrounded by go-for-the-gut sentimentalism.
On its own the hour-fifty is worth a look for that star’s Maria Altmann née Bloch-Bauer’s relationship with her friend’s (Frances Fisher) idealistic son, who becomes her own lawyer and surrogate son to be schooled, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the real Maria’s four children not once referred to. There are as well sepia-ish in situ reenactments of doomed, degraded Vienna Jewry around the time of the Anschluss.
Although there are “good” Austrians like muckraking journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) and the just three-man arbitration panel, playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first screenplay is not kind to Austria’s arrogant deceitful government, its people or world of art, never mind the briefest of throwaways on Hitler and Kurt Waldheim. Nor does it paint a pretty picture of the cosmetics heir and art dealer Ronald Lauder, who paid a record price for the title painting to display in his New York gallery.
He and Altmann are Jewish refugees from Austria, Randy is the grandson of the Jewish émigré composer Arnold Schönberg. Their story becomes timelier in these present moments of fanatics’ destruction of “infidel” cultural artifacts, of descendents’ oft frustrated attempts to recover family property seized by brutal governments, of the Cornelius Gurlitt case in Munich, and of resultant reticence and recalcitrance of museums and private collectors.
At the 1998 burial of her sister in the Los Angeles where they have lived for years, widowed octogenarian small boutique owner Maria is referred to Randy with regard to papers left by that sibling. Aside from his smudged glasses, the young man is not prepossessing, and with an understanding wife (Pam, by Katie Holmes) and a baby, is on a trial period with a prestigious law firm which, nevertheless, will give him a week free to work on the woman’s case on his own.
Hanging in renowned Belvedere Gallery is the “country’s Mona Lisa,” Woman in Gold, by Art Nouveau leader and president of the Vienna Succession group Gustav Klimt (Moritz Bleibtreu). The painter and muralist was among famous attendees at the intellectual soirees of his friend and favorite model, Adele Bloch-Bauer (Antje Traue), doubly Altmann’s aunt as her mother’s sister and the wife of her father’s brother Ferdinand. Interspersed with bright color vignette’s of girlchild Maria (Nellie Schilling) and her enigmatically smiling aunt, are others of gay family celebration at Maria’s (Tatiana Maslany) 1938 wedding to aspiring opera tenor Fritz Altmann (Max Irons) and shortly afterwards the newlyweds’ harrowing escape to temporary safety in Cologne (and eventually to the U.K. en route to the U.S.). Among possessions seized by the Gestapo five years later were Adele’s diamond necklace of the painting given to Maria at her wedding by her uncle -- later photographed around the neck of Hermann Goering’s wife -- and priceless artworks including several Klimts, among them the soon-renamed 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
Adele died young, over a decade before the fascist takeover, and had informally left the work to the capital’s National Gallery. However, the non-binding bequest was overridden by her widow’s subsequent will that left the later-plundered art to their two nieces. Legal papers are one thing, but possession furnishes nine-tenths of a yet stronger one.
Maria had sworn never to return to her past, the scene of devastation of so rich an Ashkenazi culture or to speak German. But she and her increasingly dedicated or obsessed, increasingly Jewish, lawyer fly there, twice, and wage battle on up to our Supreme Court in Washington. The two bond, of course, and confront their heritage and their people’s past. He matures and grows stronger, she grows proud of him and even more proud of her adopted country.
Those developments are not at all the stuff of surprise. One wishes that they had been treated with less unabashed targeting of the emotions. The facts in themselves would have made for a stronger film.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)