Gustav Klimt’s mesmerizing 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a contradiction in terms. A dark-haired woman gazes at the viewer, softness in every shade of her pale face and refinement in her pose—yet she is surrounded by heavy, heathenish gold patterns, abstract and evocative of an Egyptian mural. Woman in Gold, director Simon Curtis’ retelling of the painting’s colorful history and the international legal battle over it, is somewhat less mesmerizing, though still full of contradiction. The filmmakers attempt to capture something of the mysterious aura of the Klimt portrait; their efforts are eye-catching, but certainly less dazzling than might have been hoped.
Despite its dramatic source material, the film warms up slowly. Maria Altmann, headstrong elderly Jewish-Austrian refugee living in L.A. in the late ’90s (played by acclaimed actress Helen Mirren), seeks to reclaim the Klimt portrait of her beloved aunt Adele, confiscated by the Nazis and later hung in the Belvedere art museum in Vienna by the post-war Austrian government. She enlists the help of floundering young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (a boyish Ryan Reynolds), grandson of Maria’s family friend, Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Legal obstacles to reclaiming the painting—which the Austrian government won’t admit was wrongfully taken—force Altmann to confront the ghosts of her past and seek emotional as well as legal restitution for the grievous wrongs committed against her and her family. The film thus depicts two worlds: Maria’s nostalgic recollections of her youth before and during the War (told in nigh seamless transitions between Austrian and English), and her struggle in the late 1990s–early 2000s to regain her family’s painting.
Flashbacks compose one of the film’s strengths, revealing Maria’s loving family and their struggle as Austrians coping with a Nazi occupation. Anchoring these flashbacks is the stunning Tatiana Maslany playing young Maria—a winning performance that is sensitive, tense, and compelling. Yet it doesn’t quite jibe with Helen Mirren’s. Perhaps it’s implied that long years of living with tragedy gave her a sharp-tongued edge, but it is hard to see the melancholy young Maria reflected in Mirren’s curt and stubborn elderly Maria.
These conflicting performances make it difficult to focus on the film’s key component: Maria’s identity as an Austrian living in the shadow of the Holocaust, stripped of everything by the Nazis—even her family heritage. In her attempt to regain the Klimt portrait, the film introduces the idea of “restitution,” in the sense that returning any tiny part of Altmann’s life to its “original state” is fitting and just. The painting becomes emblematic of her identity as a Jewish-Austrian exile robbed of the beauty of family life by Nazi invaders.
Not only Nazis, the film contends, unjustly confiscate family heritage and identity. For Maria Altmann, her family history is taken twice—first by the Nazis, and then by the Austrian government which claims that the famous Klimt belongs rightfully to Austria. They initially mistitle the painting simply “A Woman in Gold,” removing even the name of Maria’s aunt, and turn a blind eye to the injustice done in obtaining the portrait.
This motivates Maria to regain the painting, because her identity is tied to remembering—keeping her family alive in her heart. The film constantly refers to Altmann’s and Schoenberg’s heritage—to their grandmother, with the beautiful eyes, or their grandfather, the composer, or their teasing uncle. These familial ties are part of the individual; though American, Randy and Maria are shaped by their Jewish-Austrian roots and permanently scarred by the Holocaust.
Reynolds’s best moment as the young lawyer, in fact, is when he grapples with this tragic heritage. Struggling to support a family in the wake of law school debt, Randy Schoenberg is initially interested in reclaiming the painting for its monetary value (over $100 million). But traveling to Vienna and revisiting the horrors committed against his Jewish ancestors alters Randy’s attitude. He finds himself hiding in a bathroom near the Holocaust memorial, stifling bitter sobs, surprised at how strongly his family’s history affects him.
Rough spots emerge in the film’s storytelling, however, in regards to the rightness or wrongness of Maria Altmann’s claim. The story’s power hangs on the fact that Altmann should fight for ownership of the painting, and yet her own conviction about this wavers repeatedly. She flip-flops in her desire to pursue the painting in a way that confuses the determined Randy—not to mention the audience.
This ambiguous depiction of Maria’s wishes is reflected, suitably, in the vague portrayal of the painting’s subject, enigmatic Adele Bloch-Bauer who died young. In Maria’s memories, Adele utters lofty-sounding things like “I worry about the future,” and “I wonder whether when you are a grown woman you will have to amuse yourself with trifles,” but her personality is never fully developed. Such characterization missteps surface elsewhere as well; the gravitas of the Supreme Court scene, for instance, is oddly undermined by a lighthearted portrayal of Chief Justice Rehnquist who deflates the courtroom drama with a few wisecracks.
The film loses ground in convincing viewers of the legal case and Altmann’s attachment to the painting on two points. [Spoiler alert!] First, Altmann speaks affectionately of the painting as a reminder of her aunt, and yet she ultimately sells it to a museum in New York, not L.A.. Having at first unsuccessfully offered out of court to leave the painting in the Belvedere on the condition that the Austrians recognize it was stolen, her refusal to leave it in Austria after winning rights to it stems, apparently, merely from frustration with the Austrians.
Second, there is the troubling fact that Adele actually wanted the painting to hang in the Belvedere after her death—though she died long before the Nazi occupation and ensuing tragedies. That Schoenberg finds a legal loophole to get around Adele’s original wish is, nevertheless, slightly discomforting.
The situation is about as complicated as it sounds; and the filmmakers do not necessarily do an adequate job of leading the audience through the legal hoops. Nor do they explain clearly why suing for the painting is worthwhile, except that it has something to do with restitution for the Holocaust. “Because people forget,” Altmann says sharply at the beginning of the film, and adds, almost as an afterthought, “…and also, justice.”
The redemptive moments of the film, however, are the loving portraits of family identity, the moving performances of Maslany and Reynolds, and its thoughtful discussion of restitution. In the end, Altmann admits that winning her case does not bring healing to the pain of having lost her family. Poignantly, the film is careful to clarify that no amount of legal restitution can ever erase personal wounds of the past. Perhaps all that glitters is not gold, but, despite some storytelling difficulties, Woman in Gold has moments where it really shines.
Woman in Gold
Directed by Simon Curtis