by Jack H. Simons and Erigena Sallaku
Released in April, it had practically disappeared from theaters before the 4th of July weekend. Amazon already has the movie for sale. By the time you read this, it may even be showing on Netflix.
And it is the best movie of 2015.
The film follows a simple, true story: Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles seeks justice for the theft of her family’s valuables and priceless art by the Nazis (and then the state of Austria) before and during World War II.
By the end of the war their jewelry suffered the fate of stolen ornaments from all of history – gems are separated from their settings; the settings melted down. The jewelry thus vanishes as finished works of art and reappears as cut gems, and lumps of gold, silver, or platinum.
But paintings are different. They must be shown – displayed in public arenas, as was the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Woman in Gold). Austrian artist Gustav Klimt created the painting in 1907. In 1941 six Klimt paintings — all stolen from the Bauer family and including The Woman in Gold — were acquired by the Austrian state gallery from a horde of Nazi-stolen art, and housed in the Belvedere Palace.
The Woman in Gold quickly became the most popular work of art displayed in the national museum.
In a perfect storm of tragic historical confusion, Austria had been invaded by the Third Reich on 12 March 1938. The German-speaking Republic of Austria ceased to exist as an independent state. Thousands mobbed the streets and threw flowers as the German soldiers marched into Vienna, but thousands stayed in their apartments and watched in dread from behind their curtains.
Following the war, the whole of Austria’s citizenry had to heal the wounds from the past, clear the wreckage, and recover the country. In good Germanic fashion they did just that. But in the center of all this positive action hung the nation’s favorite painting: The Woman in Gold.
Ah, “gilt – O guilt indeed.” The lust of the eyes; theft makes strange bedfellows. Austrian officials proved their consciousness that a crime had been committed by renaming the painting: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I became The Woman in Gold. Adele Bloch-Bauer was too personal, too family, too Jewish.
So, The Woman in Gold began its life by another version of Immaculate Conception – it was just there, hanging on the wall, a painting without origin – more importantly a painting that had never been stolen from Austrian citizens of Jewish descent who had lost their freedom, their livelihoods, their nation, and many their lives in Nazi death camps.
Having said all that, a dramatic movie describing [Spoiler Alert] the recovery of The Woman in Gold by Maria Altmann is not promising material. Screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell overcomes the difficulty by working the back story — the painting’s origins, the painting’s family, and the family’s struggles with Nazi theft and death threats — into the more placid modern story of interviews, court cases, discussions of the past, and struggles with entrenched bureaucrats.
Director Simon Curtis builds his vision – from the posing for the portrait in Vienna – Maria Altmann (Mirren) standing over the coffin of her elder sister in Los Angeles – recruiting her friend’s lawyer-son, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), to see about recovering the painting – the dynamics of the Bauer family in Vienna and the curse of Nazi hate – the more velvety determination of the Austrian bureaucrats to keep the stolen painting – to the return of the painting to Maria Altmann by an Austrian arbitration panel.
For excitement, the movie has a chase through Vienna as a young Maria and her husband escape the Nazis. It also has some speeding on a modern Los Angeles freeway – but don’t watch the movie for excitement. Watch it for pathos, grit, struggle, emotional involvement, and beauty.
The painting and the film dazzle the eyes and mind.
We will credit Curtis, the director, for the finished product, since we assume all the variant strains of the work passed through his mind and spirit. An observer at the showing I attended called it a “three handkerchief movie.” The understated scenes showing the persecution of the Jews in Vienna are moving – unbearable. The oily, modern Austrian bureaucrats sleek and sure.
Not surprisingly, the actors carry the film — from the least to the top, all wonderful. Beginning with the character actors (four of them recognizable from Foyle’s War) and on upward.
Helen Mirren: Adds to a lustrous career. Personifies the courage, wit, endurance, and wisdom it took to retrieve Altmann’s stolen property.
Ryan Reynolds: “Who is he?” “I’ve never seen him before.” “My new favorite male actor.” I looked up his previous roles and understood why we were strangers. Well no more. May he find more opportunities equal to The Woman in Gold.
Tatiana Maslany: A revelation to me, but because of her role in Orphan Black known to millions. It was not possible to steal the show as young Maria, but if it were, she would have done it.
The critics came out curiously divided and indifferent. Rotten Tomatoes gave the film a 52 percent rating based on 114 reviews. Metacritic scored it 51 out of 100 based on 31 reviews. Normally I trust critics (and you should too), but the rejection of this film by almost 50 percent of their number is beyond my understanding.
A young critic with more insight than many of her peers came to the following conclusion: “This movie is a good choice for audiences who like character-centered historical dramas. Schoenberg transforms from an ambitious young man fueled by the desire for money to ambition fueled by his love for justice. As a result he connects on a deeper level with his heritage. Altmann evolves from indifferent and content with her comfortable life to finding the courage to face her past and achieve justice for her family.”