Woman in Gold Shines, but Only with Gilding

Directed by Simon Curtis
Weinstein Company, 110 minutes, PG-13
* * *

The first thing to know about Woman in Gold is that it’s much better than a lot of its reviews. The second is that it’s not nearly as good as it ought to be. It is a story about art looted by the Nazis during World War II but, in this case, not just any art—we’re talking paintings by Gustav Klimt, including his famed Woman in Gold, a piece considered by many to be part of the Austrian soul.

Painting titles are often conveniently anonymous. The “woman” had a name: Adele Bloch-Bauer, and before she was a national icon she was a beloved family member whose portrait hung in the apartment of her uncle, Frederick Altmann, until the Nazis removed it and the remaining Jewish Altmanns­–and only the former to safekeeping. The film follows the efforts of Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), to recover Adele’s portrait (and four other Klimts). To say that Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery and the Austrian government would rather whitewash their Holocaust past than part with “Woman in Gold,” is to do disservice to the depths of their heinousness.

The movie is essentially a series of archival searches and courtroom appearances that take place in Vienna, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, and involve Maria, her nephew lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), and Austrian investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl). The film tries very hard to build drama and that may have been the wrong approach. Anyone who cares about art already knows how the drama ends—in 2006, “Woman in Gold” was returned to Maria Altmann, which is why today it hangs in New York City’s Neue Gallery.

This begs a question: Would this have been a more compelling film if it had charted a different course? By choosing the most conservative path—instead of, for instance, looking at how the art world collaborated to do an end around the Holocaust—director Simon Curtis essentially opted for one of film’s most tired and trite memes: the Big Courtroom Scene. There’s nothing audacious about that unless you want to give Curtis props for having several of them in the same movie. His boldest move was to construct a Supreme Court hearing that is nothing like a real one, presumably to enhance tension, though it may have just been an excuse to give Jonathan Pryce a juicy cameo as Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The acting is mostly solid, with Mirren trying her best (and not quite succeeding) to assume a German accent and give Meryl Streep a run for accent mastery. (Meryl still wears the crown!) Mirren is steely and, by turns, vulnerable and stubborn. Reynolds, a much lesser actor, is less convincing as a lawyer; he’s simply too soft and unfocused. Elizabeth McGovern is much better in her cameo role as Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, and Antje Traue is simply radiant in the non-speaking role of Adele. Charles Dance and Katie Holmes also appear in cameos. In the end, though, what one notices about all the principal actors is that none of them is Jewish. Is this a problem? Yes; it probably is—we’re decades past the time in which it was routine for actors to dress in cross-cultural garb.

Gustav Klimt's 'Woman in Gold'
There are other liberties taken. Czernin, not Schoenberg, located the key documents and notified Maria Altmann that she had a legitimate restitution claim. More problematic is that key Austrian politicians and art world figures appear as composites with fictional names. Doesn’t this add a new layer of complicity and injustice to an already sordid tale? Other small details are changed for dramatic effect: Maria didn’t leave Austria until her father died, so the tearful farewell scene is a contrivance. There was never a time limit on stolen Nazi art—another contrivance.

This is an amazing story rather ham-handedly told. By opting for clichés and drama-enhancements, the film is akin to a surgically enhanced model draped in silk to hide the droops and scars. When reality hands you a juicy tale, it’s best not to muck it up with chemical additives. Woman in Gold is worth watching, but be aware that you’re beholding gilding, not 24-karat gold.

Rob Weir

No comments: