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Not a Masterpiece

The Weinstein Company
 109 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds
Woman in Gold

When watching Woman in Gold, I realized two inescapable truths. First, no matter how many years go by after the fall of Nazi Germany, it’s always possible to find new cruelties and atrocities to portray without having to resort to fictionalization. Second, real life legal proceedings, as opposed to the fictional trials shown on television and in the movies, are inherently dull, no matter how compelling the subject matter.


Woman in Gold illustrates both of these truisms, which combine to make the movie a very inconsistent and at times frustrating experience. The movie has scenes that are incredibly powerful and emotional, more so because they actually occurred. In between, there are other scenes in which months pass with very little happening and characters change their minds as needed to maintain tension and keep the story going.


Woman in Gold is based on the relatively little explored topic of plundered Nazi artwork, in this case, several paintings by Gustav Klimt that were commissioned by a wealthy Jewish family in Vienna in the 1920’s. One of these, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, has been described as the Austrian Mona Lisa. Adele died during the 1920s and her husband fled to Switzerland before World War II began. The paintings remained in the possession of other family members in the couple’s home until they were confiscated by the Germans who annexed Austria, as were many other valuables belonging to Jewish families. Because no German official wanted to keep the Klimt works, they eventually wound up on display after World War II in a Vienna museum.


The movie begins in 1998, when Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), niece of Adele, begins her efforts to reclaim the paintings. The Austrian government had recently announced a restitution program designed to return stolen artworks to the rightful owners. Maria hires an attorney, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the son of a close friend to represent her. Randy, who is the grandson of the noted Austrian composer August Schoenberg, senses there is money in the case (as indeed there proved to be) and persuades his new law firm to let him go with Maria to Vienna to plead their case.


Maria’s claim to the artwork is not clearcut, since it depends in part on the interpretation of Adele’s will. However, Maria and Randy never receive a fair hearing before the restitution commission. Instead, what they encounter is a combination of legal roadblocks, patriotic Austrian pride, and some not-too-carefully masked bigotry. When the Austrian government rejects Maria’s claims to ownership, the case seems to be over because she would be required to post a bond of over one million dollars to pursue the case in Austrian court. Maria


Fortunately for Maria, Randy figures out a legal loophole that allows him to bring suit against the Austrian government in federal court in the United States. The Austrians fight the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and lose, and eventually Maria has her claim vindicated. The portrait of Adele was sold to a collector (Estee Lauder’s son) for a then record $135 million and is still on display in a museum in New York.


Although Maria’s life is the stuff of high drama, her court case is not. The Supreme Court does decide the case, not because of the importance of the paintings but to resolve a technical point of federal law. Further, the Austrian government’s strategy in the case (a common one in high profile litigation against a lesser financed opponent) is to delay and appeal, in the hopes Maria will either drop the lawsuit or die. So, the last hour of Woman in Gold treats viewers to title cards in a number of scenes indicating how many months pass from one proceeding to the next (the actual controversy took six years to resolve).


When the characters aren’t figuratively twiddling their thumbs, the script by newcomer Alexi Kaye Campbell keeps finding ways to invent confrontations among the various characters regarding whether to continue with the case. So, at different times, Maria, Randy, Randy’s long suffering wife (Katie Holmes), and his boss at the law firm (Charles Dance) suggest dropping the case only to have some other character refuse to do so. It gets to the stage where Maria and Randy repeatedly change their minds from one scene to the next what they want to do. Needless to say, these repetitive sequences make the movie seem like it’s actually lasting the six years it took to litigate the case.


Woman in Gold’s lackluster screenplay diminishes but it can’t destroy the power of the underlying story. Maria’s determination shows through, and there’s no one like Helen Mirren to show steely determination, although, in her case, she leavens it with a healthy dose of bantering wit. She also manages to cut to the heart of the legal issues involved and explain why refusing to let the paintings remain in Austria was the right decision.


Director Simon Curtis also makes the movie more interesting by intercutting the more recent scenes with flashbacks of Maria’s youth in Vienna, up to the time she and her husband fled. There are the usual scenes of Nazi atrocities, but in this case, they are noteworthy more for the petty humiliating nature of the indignities heaped on the Jewish populace (clipping the sideburns of Jewish men or forcing people to clean the obscenities others had written on their houses). Unlike movies set in Germany, the cruelty here is worse because the movie takes place in Austria, itself a country seized by its German neighbors but one in which many of its residents, both in the 1940’s and decades later, gleefully participated in the shocking behavior.


Tatiana Maslany plays the young Maria in the flashbacks and the emotion in them is more raw, real, and consistent than in the more modern scenes. Eventually, Maria and her husband escape, a journey viewers know will be successful, but one which still builds considerable suspense. At one point, the couple’s safety is determined by two nods of the head from a local woman, one indicating in which direction the couple should go and a second one misdirecting their Nazi pursuers.


Ironically, the story of Maria Altmann and her quest to regain her family’s artwork has been the subject of several documentaries that will give viewers a better understanding of the circumstances and, at the same time, preserve the inherent drama and tragedy of her case.


The structure of Woman in Black is quite similar to that of Philomena. In both movies, an older woman played by a great actress tries to get justice for something that happened decades earlier. And, in both cases, a younger man winds up helping her and learning a good bit about himself and life. However, compared to the Judi Dench film, Woman in Gold falls a good bit short. The acting is fine and the drama is still there, but Woman in Gold often feels more like a cheap reproduction than an original masterpiece. All the elements are there for a great movie, but Woman in Gold needed a bit more careful screenwriting restoration than it actually received. 

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Woman in Gold (2015) on IMDb