I’d missed Woman in Gold when it was released in 2015. It disappeared from the theaters in my area so rapidly I missed my chance. The film did make $33 Million in the US. That’s a flop for a Hollywood picture, but the BBC Films production was made on a budget of only $11 Million so it was a financial success. It has now come to Netflix so I finally got the chance to see it.
The theft of art treasures by the Nazis during World War II has been covered before. In 1964 John Frankenheimer directed The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, about the French Resistance trying to stop a train headed to Germany loaded with art treasures. More recently there was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a fictionalized story based on the special Allied force set up to recover and return art treasures that had been looted. What separates Woman in Gold is that it’s a true story where what happened after the war is as injust as what happened during the Nazi period. It also focuses mainly on one family and one masterpiece, and the fight to return it to the rightful owner.
When her sister dies, octogenarian Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) discovers paperwork that reveals her sibling tried to recover a painting taken during the war. Since then the canvas was on display in Austria’s national gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace. The Gustav Klimt painting is correctly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” though it is nicknamed “The Woman In Gold” because of Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf for the portrait. (The “I” at the end of the title is because Klimt did two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the only time he ever painted the same model twice.) To Maria, though, the portrait was her Aunt Adele, who was like a second mother to Maria and her sister until Adele’s untimely death from meningitis in 1925. Maria has lived in Southern California ever since she and her husband escaped from Austria shortly before the war. Through another ex-pat, she’s put in contact with attorney Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds). Randy has his own connection to Austria, as his grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenburg who developed the 12-tone form of composition. Schoenburg had left Europe in 1934 following Hilter’s ascension to power, eventually settling in California and teaching at UCLA. Randy learns Austria has recently formed a reparations panel to deal with looted pieces of art, but the state is loath to let go of the painting, a certified masterpiece that’s viewed as an Austrian treasure.
The movie moves through three periods. There are a few scenes of Maria as a child interacting with Adele, but the main contrast to the modern day story is Maria as a young woman and new bride at the time of Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in 1938. Maria is played at that time by Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black.” Adele’s husband, Maria’s uncle, is more clear-eyed about the threat of Hitler than the rest of the Viennese Jewish community and escapes to Zurich. After the Anschluss travel is forbidden for Jews and the laws that would eventually lead to the Holocaust are put in place. The contrast is set with the older Maria having to return to Austria to pursue her claim while the younger Maria must find a way to escape her homeland.
Besides the main characters, the movie has a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles. A key ally for Maria and Randy is Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl. Czernin was an investigative reporter in Vienna who helped expose the Nazi past of Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Randy’s wife Pam is played by Katie Holmes, and the film also features Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern.
As always, Mirren is a delight to watch on the screen with her deft touch in characterization. She’s like a wine that grows in subtle flavor as it ages. Reynolds holds his own with Mirren. He’s known in particular for comedy, especially after the success of Deadpool, but he can handle the less showy, more complex roles just as well. It took me a while to realize I was watching Maslany, even though I’ve been a fan of Orphan Black since the beginning. She disappears into roles, but you can see the Maria that Mirren portrays clearly in Maslany’s performance.
The film was directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) from a script by first-time screenwriter Alei Kaye Campbell, who’d mostly worked as an actor before this. Credit’s also given to the real life Maria Altmann and E. Randol (Randy) Schoenburg for their lives as basis for the screenplay, which is unusual but makes perfect sense once you see the movie.
Woman in Gold may not have been more successful since people thought of it as a Holocaust story. Last year’s Denial with Rachel Weisz, which dealt with Holocaust denial, made $4 Million on about the same budget as Gold. But Gold is equal parts legal thriller and escape story, and it is well worth a viewing on Netflix or in any other way available.