Besides the awful genocide committed against the Jewish people during the Holocaust, they experienced many other atrocities. One is the dispossession of property, including priceless pieces of jewellery, paintings, and artefacts. Dispossession is putting it too mildly – theft, more like it. Around 100 000 artworks have never been reunited with their rightful owners.
Woman in Gold paints the incredible story of an elderly Austrian woman, Maria Altman (Helen Mirren), who embarks on a quest to have five masterpieces by Gustav Klimt, stolen by the Nazis from her family, returned to her possession. Among them is the so-called Mona Lisa of Austria, Klimt’s Art Nouveau Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who was Altman’s aunt. The title of the film refers to the artist’s style of using masses of gold leaf in his paintings, creating artworks that (literally) radiate.
Maria, who fled the Nazi invasion of Vienna to the U.S., asks young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), for help. Almost unbelievably, Randy happens to be the grandson of the famous Austrian composers: Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl, who themselves had fled the Nazis. In the 1990s, Austria set up a restitution process for Jewish families to claim back stolen art pieces, many of which ended up in galleries after the war. The process was little more than a PR exercise, with many claims summarily denied. After all, some of these paintings were near priceless. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which ended up in Austria’s Belvedere gallery, was worth over 100 million US dollars during the time the story is set. And the Austrians weren’t keen to let this go.
The film opens with Klimt carefully brushing the gold leaf onto the painting and then moves to California, where Maria has made her life. Her story is told in flashback: memories of her aunt, of the paintings in her parental home, her wedding, the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria), and the Nazis taking away their possessions. As part of erasing the identity of its subject, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the Nazis simply renamed Woman in Gold, just another attempt at deleting the Jewish people from history. For Maria, her family’s Klimt paintings represent more than just wealth. She tells an Austrian journalist that it’s about keeping the memories alive, and of course, there is the need to see justice done and wrongs put right.
Maria’s pursuit to have what’s rightfully hers returned becomes a landmark case in which the U.S. Supreme Court rules she has the right to sue the Austrian government. This results in an unprecedented arbitration in Austria itself. It’s an emotional journey that lasts several years, involving both cover-ups and fraud.
The affectionate quibbling between the stubborn Maria and self-deprecating, well-intentioned Ryan provides a (surprising) on-screen spark. There are not enough superlatives to describe Mirren’s abilities to deliver in each film she stars in. Reynolds himself is quite lovable in Woman in Gold. It’s the kind of heart-warming film that’s enjoyable because at the end you can punch the air and say “yay!” It’s sweet with little tidbits of humour: “I wasn’t going to miss all the fun”, Maria tells Randy when he says she doesn’t have to join him in Austria, a place filled with painful memories. “This is like James Bond film. And you’re Sean Connery,” she quips.
However, because the movie focuses on the feel-good factor it doesn’t quite convey the horror of what happened during the Anschluss. Woman in Gold is not a masterpiece (though it manages to tell the story of Nazi/stolen art story much better than George Clooney’s insipid The Monument’s Men), Instead, it’s like a good copy of an original artwork: almost as enjoyable, just not quite.
Rating: 3½ out of 5
Director: Simon Curtis
Cast: Helen Mirren Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl
Woman in Gold opens in SA cinemas on 31 July 2015.