This should have been brilliant! Gah! A true story. A painting of a beautiful aunt, stolen by the Nazis, wending its way to the Belvedere Gallery in Austria, claimed in restitution by the last survivor of the family hounded out of the country – or to their deaths. Such is the story of Maria Altmann, her family, and the painting of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer – the Woman in Gold.
Helen Mirren stars as Maria in the present day: now in the States, running a boutique of nice clothes for nice people, she has an interesting accent and memories of her childhood in Austria. It is a performance that holds the heart of the film, Maria burying her sister and finding memories in her sister’s belongings that drive her to resolve a deep wrong done to her family. The wrong plays out with flashbacks to the war, where Tatiana Maslany gives a fascinating performance as young Mirren. They balance each other throughout the story: one running through the damage, the other, agonised, running towards it with old rage.
Old Jack here watched the film with a small group of oldsters who were teens in the war. There were sparkling eyes in the room at the fashions, the fear and the cruelties visited on the Altmann family. We knew the other side of things: the distant fears in unoccupied land. The scenes with Maslany and her family – happily gathering, dancing, laughing, then destroyed and on the run – left us silent and sad. There comes a moment when Maria must leave her parents – Dad sick, Mum loyal – and run the gauntlet of bellowing bastards to a plane out of the country. That goodbye…what those people went through…
Alas, the rest of the film is weighed down by simplicity and caricature. And a very straight line. Mirren’s Maria, snipey but accessible, smart and set, recruits inexperienced lawyer Randy Scheonberg to help her challenge the Austrian authorities. Ryan Reynolds gives oddly bland as Randy, Mirren filling in much of his personality with her nervous tension as they trip to Vienna to be avoided, then rejected, then gamed by the Belvedere. He has a moment of genuine, powerful emotion at the Jewish memorial: it all crashes in on him and the reality and meaning of the restitution comes like a fist out of history.
Twitchy characterisation comes from Daniel Brühl’s skulking and helpful Hubertus Czernin (ahhh…the lottery of life, eh?), but it is just a daub of colour in a slumping story…
The debate, is it right, is it wrong, what’s a decent middle-ground so long from the war, is never really broached. There’s drama and discussion in there. Once it turns out that the aunt in the painting didn’t own it, therefore her wish to gift the painting to the Belvedere when her husband died is not a legal position, and the stealing and early gifting of it by the Nazis was illegal as well as just vile…the plot’s done. Maria plainly owns the thing and Austrian law needs to be overcome… true story, linearly told…and the Austrian authorities are presented as the moral descendants of the Nazis for being twats about it: thieves, all.
Yes… is all one can say to that.
Perhaps old Jack here spends too much time in the TV room, listening to other oldsters reflect and regret. What this film brought home was the energy of youth – its adventures and endeavours – can be replaced with a darker, bitter energy that, whilst right, dogs the living of old age.
But how do you balance the need to forget with the need to finish things and – as here – put them right? Woman in Gold doesn’t go far into examining this point, instead twisting itself into story-telling tropes of cliffhanger and triumph.
Old Jack here didn’t get the emotional and intellectual kick I expected of this film. It muffles the debate in emotional derring-so: the brave lawyer, dragging his family through angst for his new beliefs, and…winning? The stoic daughter, honouring her aunt and her family through one last battle, this time turning on her tormentors, and…yes, winning.
Woman in Gold is okay, emotive in its history, and definitely worth your time. But it is not the brilliant thing it should have been.