Last year, “The Monuments Men” addressed the Allied effort to reclaim precious works of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Now, director Simon Curtis explores the same topic from a more personal perspective in “Woman in Gold.”
Based on a true story, the core events of “Woman in Gold” actually take place decades after the end of the war. The title refers to “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” a celebrated portrait by Gustav Klimt that was confiscated in Austria. Eventually it wound up on display at the Belvedere gallery in Vienna, where it became a national icon — Austria’s own “Mona Lisa,” as the film puts it.
The problem is that the woman in the portrait is Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren)’s aunt, and the painting is one of many items the Nazis stole from her family before she escaped to America during the war. With the help of Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a lawyer with an Austrian heritage of his own, Altmann takes on the Austrian government in an effort to bring her aunt home.
But red tape is only the beginning of the pair’s opposition. Altmann hasn’t returned to Austria since she fled during the war and isn’t anxious to confront her demons. This isn’t happy news for Schoenberg, who is risking a new position at a top-flight L.A. law firm to chase Altmann’s case. Luckily they find some support in the form of an underground journalist named Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), and an Austrian movement to restore stolen artwork gives the team a window of opportunity.
In spite of its bureaucratic plot, “Woman in Gold” employs excellent storytelling to keep the audience in suspense and emotionally connected to its outcome. It obviously helps to have someone of Mirren’s caliber in the lead role, though Reynolds also puts out a good performance as he traces Schoenberg’s character arc.
It also helps that rather than stick with the early 21st century narrative, “Woman in Gold” uses frequent flashbacks to put us in the source of the turmoil. Here, Tatiana Maslany plays the young Maria, and Antje Traue plays her Aunt Adele.
Strangely, “Woman in Gold’s” greatest strength may be the way it deals with its own weakness. “Monuments Men” had several weak points, but its most fatal was the attempt to equate the theft of artwork with the Nazis' theft of human life. The victims of “Woman in Gold” face a similar challenge. Altmann comes from an Austrian family of privilege, and while they are targeted for their Jewish heritage, the loss of their riches feels closer to a sad injustice than a genuine tragedy.
To its credit, though, “Woman in Gold” deals with this through the eyes of Schoenberg, who is initially attracted to Altmann’s case because of its potential financial windfall, but later has to confront the nature of his motivations. The film also toys with an even stronger condemnation when it addresses Austria’s initial reception of Hitler and the Nazis.
Because of this, “Woman in Gold” gives the audience a lot to think about, even if it isn’t easy to watch. Though it hinges on the atrocities of the Holocaust, its darkness is much more cerebral and worth considering.
“Woman in Gold" is rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language; running time: 109 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.