The year is 1999. Maria Altmann is an octogenarian living in Los Angeles. In Austria, there is pressure on the government to make restitution to surviving Jewish families for artworks stolen in the Second World War. Altmann believes she could have a case. She emigrated to the USA in 1939 to escape the rise of the Nazis. Her family once owned several Klimt paintings, including one of her Aunt Adele (Adele Bloch-Bauer I). The work has become beloved by the public and it hangs in Austria’s state art museum. It has been renamed The Woman In Gold. Altmann engages Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer son of a close friend, to look into the matter. However, the Austrian government proves more than a match for the old lady and her rather inexperienced legal counsel. Nonetheless, they are determined to remount the case for the Klimts to be returned.
THE WOMAN IN GOLD attempts to dramatise an episode of world history that most of us know only from movies. The story is a personal angle on the tale touched upon by George Clooney’s THE MONUMENTS MEN (2013). Maria’s family, the Bloch-Bauers are patrons of the arts and their home is a salon for some of the most celebrated writers, musicians and painters in Vienna. This life ends after Austria joins with Nazi Germany. It gives a modern audience some insight into the humiliation of having one’s property stolen by the state and the violation of having one’s family forcibly separated.
Ryan Reynolds does well in a mostly dramatic role. Helen Mirren is also solid as Maria. The dynamic between the characters is reminiscent of Stephen Frears’ PHILOMENA (2014) where a younger man has to learn something more of life by campaigning for an older woman who has suffered a great wrong. Both films use humor to lighten the mood and the charm of their leads to take us through dark subject matter. THE WOMAN IN GOLD lacks a strongly-told narrative. Sections of the story are gripping, others parts are muddled. There is also an over-reliance on flashbacks. These are well-mounted but not always called for. Tatiana Maslany from television’s Orphan Black is good casting as the young Maria Altmann.
The production is from BBC films. Director Simon Curtis has strong television credentials and the film has the feel of a tasteful television movie. Which is not to damn it with faint praise, but a comment on the handling of the subject matter. SARAH’S KEY (2010) another recent film that deals with the Holocaust and is aimed at a similar audience (i.e. classy, older, history-loving, cinema-goers like you and me, friend). That movie implies the horror and the violence and yet doesn’t feel too stinted in its re-telling. Obviously, anyone sane acknowledges that almost every film about the Holocaust stints in its portrayal of Nazi crimes against humanity, however it is possible to under-do it and to extent, this film has. Having said that, there is still something bracing about seeing the fight for justice unfolding with our favourite actors on the side of the angels.
THE WOMAN IN GOLD is still running in selected cinemas around Australia. It is in English and German with English subtitles. Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes. (5/10)