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Woman in Gold

Woman in Gold

Some things are worth fighting for, especially when they're
worth hundreds of millions of dollars

dir: Simon Curtis


This is not a colour afflicted sequel to either The Woman in Black horror flicks or The Woman in White, the classic Wilkie Collins pot boiler. Or The Woman in Red, the classic 80s flick with Gene Wilder and Kelly Le Brock. Rawr! The sexual chemistry just burned up the screen, it did.

It’s something far more laden with importance and weighty significance. It’s based on a true story, in some ways an incredibly true story, and its very title is an affront and a lingering insult to the people affected/afflicted by the Nazis.

Austria. Vienna. In some ways this flick and a lot of ink spilled in the last half century have argued about the complicated relationship people have with that great nation and city. It spawned great art and architecture. It spawned a dictator too, who tried to consume all of Europe with his Jew-hating madness, which in turn consumed much of the rest of the world, too.

Unfortunately for me, and for one of the protagonists here, one can’t look at the clean lines and fascist architecture of the place even now without seeing the horror of back then. This flick, more than anything else, is about trying to make right something that under no circumstances can be made right.

The Woman in Gold as the title, though perfectly apt as a title, is in itself an added insult to the people this film is about. It’s known as a fairly familiar Gustav Klimt portrait, but when it was originally made back in the 1920s, it carried the name of the person it was a portrait of: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was its title. Adele sadly died quite young, but she is fondly remembered by her niece Maria (played as the elder by Dame Helen Mirren, in younger form by the great Tatiana Maslany).

She is very fondly remembered. The painting itself hasn’t been forgotten; its value, in the 1990s, conservatively put at around $150 million. It is a Klimt, after all, and his paintings, or at least reproductions thereof, have adorned the college dorm room and sharehouse walls of students, stoners, hippies, women with too many cats and sad pale goths such as myself for at least the last century or so.

It’s not about the money, though. It’s about how the current possessors (at least when the film begins) of the retitled Woman in Gold came to possess the bloody thing.

Yep. It was the Nazis who stole it, who stole everything from Maria’s family and her people. Not content with stealing millions of their lives, the Nazis just had to paw through all their stuff first, in front of them, taunting them with their white supremacy.

It’s kinda ironic, though surely not intentional, that they use an actor in an important (but minor) role here in a similar capacity to what they used the same actor in a previous flick dealing with the same theme: in Monuments Men, he, being Justus von Dohnányi played a Nazi officer spearheading the looting of Europe. Here he plays a representative of the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna refusing to even acknowledge that there was a World War II, or that Nazis existed, just in case it’s used to justify Maria’s claim. In both roles he exhibits both the haughtiness that comes from feeling like you’re untouchable, and the schoolboy-like dread that you’ll eventually be found out.

Poor bastard. Still, as a German, he has a lot to make up for. There’s another highly interesting character in this, a chap with the unfortunate name of Hubertus, played by German megahunk and superstar Daniel Bruhl, who reveals his own motivation for helping out our questing duo.

And who are the questing duo? Maria and her lawyer Randy (Ryan Reynolds) are on a quest to reclaim that painting, and a bunch of other ones, but mostly that painting. Austria, despite being defiant in the face of its shameful past, does have a modern movement where the idea of ‘art restitution’ is achieving primacy. Maybe it’s the superficial gloss of appearing like you’re sorry about profiting from old monstrous crimes, or maybe it’s the last steps or aspects of justice reparations that are left, since most of those directly affected by what happened, or who caused what happened, are mostly dead.

I know it seems like small beer, small ball stuff to set a whole film about the ownership of a painting and to think that people will care about it, or that it’s a story worth telling. It sounds inconsequential, despite the monetary values involved. As in the Monuments Men, the argument is made that amidst all the genocidal crimes the Nazis committed not only on the Jews but on all of humanity, one of the worst was the attempt to eradicate their culture and their art. On the way to exterminating an entire race, deleting their cultural heritage may seem like a minor inconvenience, but it has an even more pervasive effect than state-sanctioned slaughter. Kill a people, and they can be mourned: delete or appropriate their art and culture, and it’s like they never existed.

The retitling of the painting is a part of that. However minor it might seem in the scheme of things, I do think the film makes its case credibly that it was part and parcel with the genocidal crime committed on the Jewish people, and as such justice must be pursued. Maria herself wants to reclaim the painting because she actually loved her auntie, and it was something her family were entitled to.

But she is ambivalent about it all. Mostly, it’s because the wound of what was done to her family, and how she had to escape and abandon her parents from a city that fully, utterly supported the Nazis, is one that never goes away. She can stroll around the impressive streets and monuments of Austria now with her pet lawyer, but she still sees the rallies and the swastika everywhere.

Whenever the story takes us into the past, Maria is played by the great Tatiana Maslany. Why ‘the great’ Tatiana Maslany? Haven’t you watched Orphan Black? Why haven’t you watched Orphan Black, that most excellent clone drama (a genre you never even knew existed)? Well, take my word for it, Tatiana is a wonderful actor and it’s a joy to watch her even in a small role. She plays Maria as she gets married, as the Nazis come to power, as life for Jews in Vienna becomes progressively more horrid.

As you often see, as probably was often the case, the shitty actions of the other Viennese against Maria and her people are an even more damning contrast with the open, smiling, casual evil of the various Nazi officials making their lives hell. Maria and her husband’s escape to America constitutes the only action in the flick, and perhaps it’s misplaced, but the flick sorely needed it.

Much of the flick involves Maria and Randy arguing about what should be done, what they should do, but the flick wisely knows not to push the limits of the audience’s patience with this. Mirren plays the character with dignity, but she’s a fairly abrupt and, dare I say it, unsympathetic character. She initiates this whole legal farrago that ends up involving the Supreme Court, diplomats, ministers of Culture etc, and yet is maddeningly self-defeating in her endeavours, though I suspect some of that was artistic license intended to create dramatic beats in the storyline. She’s solid, but limited in what or how much her character can get across.

Randy, or at least Ryan Reynolds, struggles mightily with this role. There are a number of scenes where he struggles to convey emotions that had me laughing uncontrollably. There’s one scene in particular where he attends a performance of one of his famous grandfather’s (Schoenberg’s) works that had me wiping tears from my eyes.

I assure you I wasn’t crying because I empathised with what the character was going through. I laughed until I cried because I felt like I could almost see what was going on in Reynold’s mind, as he was trying to get his face to display emotions he’s not used to.

Maybe he harkened back to acting classes, and was trying to access one of those memories you’re supposed to use to trigger tears: “Thinking of my dog that died, thinking, thinking – it’s not working – nearly got it, no, lost it again, trying to be sad, BE Sad, not working, still not working, damn, I’ll never be taken seriously as a Dramatic Actor if I can’t cry now” as the director cries “Cut!”

So much effort for so little reward. Actually, though I thought he was terrible in the emotive scenes, I thought he was fine in almost all the other ones. In the scenes of dramatic conflict or when he’s explaining any of the realities of the legal world to his exasperating elder, he’s fine. Perfectly serviceable. Maybe it’s hard to take him seriously in dramatic roles because, well, he’s Ryan Reynolds, he perhaps has hidden depths as an actor that will come to the fore as he ages.

I mean, I can’t see any hints of those depths as yet, but they could be there. You never know.

This is perhaps way longer than it needed to be, and probably isn’t of that much interest to most people. I enjoyed it, and I think it’s an important story, and I don’t resent more opportunities to hate on the Nazis and their collaborators for any reason.

They really were shitty people, don’t you know.

6 Gustav Klimt paintings stolen from the victims of the Holocaust out of 10

“It's hard to believe Hitler once applied to be an art student here.
- “I wish they'd have accepted him.” – you and me, both – Woman in Gold