The atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews during WWII have been well-documented on film. The Holocaust has been the subject of many narrative films, most of them concentrating either on noted victims or highlighting life in the camps. One of the issues of the Holocaust that isn’t discusses as thoroughly is the art theft perpetrated by the Nazis – countless works of art have been confiscated and stolen from Jewish families during WWII, and the few lucky who survived the Holocaust had to endure the refreshed indignity of valiantly doing battle in the courts to get their works back.
In Simon Curtis’ latest film, Woman in Gold, the work of art in question is Gustav Klimt’s famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. The work’s subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was an Austrian socialite and a muse of Klimt’s (and possible paramour). Married to a wealthy sugar baron, Bloch-Bauer was a supporter of the arts and hosted salons in her spacious apartment in Vienna. The source of the conflict in Woman in Gold resides in Bloch-Bauer’s will which stipulated that the painting be donated to the Belvedere Palace. Bloch-Bauer died in 1925 and her husband fled Austria when Germany annexed Austira in 1938. His home was raided and his possessions looted, including Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which was acquired by the Belvedere Palace.
This brief synopsis of the background of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is important because the story deals with Bloch-Bauer’s living relative, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), who upon discovering that her late sister was trying to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis, gets in touch with Randol “Randy” Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a young attorney, to help her make a claim for restitution – essentially, she and Schoenberg take on the government of Austria in hopes of getting back the Klimt painting. Predictably, the Austrian government stonewalls Altmann, as Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is coined the Austrian Mona Lisa, and therefore losing the painting would be a huge blow to the country’s cultural standing.
But none of this is important to Altmann, who had to abandon her family when the Nazis racist policies posed a threat to Jews in Europe. The legal battle was long and protracted going all the way to the Supreme Court, before being settled by a panel of mediators.
Curtis’ ambitious film tries to do a lot in less than two hours. Not only does he cover the courtroom dramas, but he also includes flashbacks to prewar Austria, where a young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) grows up in a world of culture, art, wealth, and privilege. He handles the flashbacks well enough, but during the present time sequences, he has a tendency to leap through blocks of time – sometimes months at a time, during which we don’t know what happens. Understandably, this is because during a long, protracted legal case, there’s a lot of down time. But the result is it feels rushed, as if Curtis couldn’t be bothered to deal with the more mundane parts of Altmann’s life.
But Curtis’ periodically clumsy direction is only one debit. The other is the script, written by Alexi Kaye Campbell. He takes a large and sprawling story and admirably whittles it down to a sympathetic and inspirational David and Goliath narrative. In his hands, Maria Altmann emerges as a wronged heroine who is fighting to preserve her family’s legacy. Unfortunately, this makes the character a bit two-dimensional. Also unfortunate is Kaye Campbell’s decision to ignore the other members of Altmann’s family who survived the Holocaust – in particular her niece, Dr. Nelly Auersperg, who had mixed feelings about Schoenberg’s methods, and who was reticent about taking the Klimt paintings out of Austria. The subsequent events after the legal case caused an irreparable rift between Altman and Auersperg, and the two stopped speaking to each other. If Kay Campbell included these important details, a fuller, richer image of Altmann would’ve emerged; instead, on paper, Altmann is reduced to a plucky old lady, though Helen Mirren is able to flesh out the character more. What made Altmann so intriguing was her glamor as well as her wit – Kay Campbell managed to keep some of that, and Mirren’s strong comic timing allows for some of that humor to shine through.
Unfortunately, as the crusading lawyer, Reynolds is bland and doesn’t impress. He’s saddled with a strange character that is equal parts nerd, nebbish, and cipher, and cannot get over these flaws. He and Mirren share little chemistry, and their relationship tips into the cliched “spunky old lady/respectful young man” trope too often. As for the rest of the cast: it’s peppered with some familiar faces – Jonathan Pryce is unrecognizable as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Katie Holmes is wasted as Schoenberg’s saintly wife, and Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo as Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, but it’s Mirren’s show, and it’s a good vehicle for her to show off her considerable acting chops. Without her, the film would be an earnest, but ultimately failed attempt at highlighting a tragic chapter in world history.