Woman in Gold (2015)

Directed by Simon Curtis
Written by Alexi Kaye Campbell

Cinema, as much as we may want to think of it in different terms, is in fact a business, with a bottom line to be met and money to be made. So while it is a nice thought that cinema may be this “thing” that allows for either self-expression or the depiction of some common human truth, at the end of the day that art, that creative expression can only be possible if it proves to make a dollar. I start with this sentiment only because Woman in Gold, a film with mostly positive critical response, has made a residence at my local independent art-house cinema, taking up one of only three screens in the building in favor of other very interesting films the theater could choose to go with. However, this choice makes sense, given the theater’s main demographic, proprietors, and benefactors. So I was not surprised, nearly a month into its stay at the theatre, to attend a screening with a good crowd.

And Woman in Gold, after all, is a good film, with relevant ties to the human condition. Following the story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren/Tatiana Maslany), Woman in Gold paints a portrait of a woman not only proud of her family, but also proud of her heritage. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish couple in Vienna just before the German invasion of Austria, Maria was able to make it out of the country to America, where she has lived a full, humble life as a boutique owner in California. Upon discovering some old family letters, she learns that the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch Bauer, known more popularly as “The Woman in Gold” by Gustav Klimt, feel into Nazi hands, and has since been parted from its true owners: her family. Seeking justice she finds help with family friend and small time lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), and the two of them take on the Austrian government.

Directing his first film since My Week with Marilyn, an impressive albeit somewhat glossy film, Simon Curtis shows the perfect touch of sentimentality for this film and Maria’s story. For that reason, Woman in Goldmay not prove to be the most subtle of films on the subject of Nazi treatment of Jews, but this turns out to be one of its many surprising strengths. It is unrelenting in making us care about these characters and care about the outcome of a silly art ownership dispute. Curtis is able to do this by showing us that this is not a story about art at all. It’s a story of family, heritage, and basic human dignity. And in doing this, Curtis escapes the tropes of melodrama.

At the front and center of this story are the characters, who are so lovingly portrayed by the cast of actors. At this point in her career, it should come as no surprise that Helen Mirren is fantastic as Maria Altmann, but with the use of dual timeline storytelling, the performance of Tatiana Maslany is equally crucial, and in fact equally impressive, as the young Maria Altmann, enjoying poignant moments with her beloved aunt Adele, and running for her life from Nazis. Perhaps the greatest testament to how effectively Curtis was able to infuse these characters into the hearts of the audience is a chase scene which is just as thrilling and nail biting as one in any action film. If it were not for the investment of the audience on the survival of Maria, it would be just another chase, but this is a matter of life and death for a beloved character. This speaks volumes to both the direction of the film, and most especially the dual performance of Maria Altmann by both Mirren and Maslany.

Reynolds, and German vet Daniel Bruhl are both good here as well, but Woman in Gold is a film for Helen Mirren, Tatiana Maslany and the true victory of spirit and pride. There are those that questioned Altmann’s motives for wanting to take the painting, a proud Austrian art piece, out of the national Austrian gallery. Even I had this thought at one point in the film. But for Maria, it was not about where it belongs now, it was about who it belongs to, and for the Austrian government to arrogantly believe that a classic piece of art belongs to the people of Austria, in Maria’s eyes was wrong. For Maria “The Woman in Gold” is a portrait of her aunt, a woman who loved her like her own daughter, imparted endless wisdom upon her, and was tragically stolen away from her by the Nazis.

*** – Very Good

 

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