Film review: ‘WOMAN IN GOLD’ from ‘Built For Speed’

Due to both its inherent artistic genius and that fact that it has been reproduced in every marketable form including fridge magnets, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer aka Woman in Gold, is one of the most recognisable paintings in history.  The film Woman in Gold, which stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, tells the remarkable true story behind the painting and the battle to return it to its rightful owner after it was stolen by the Nazis.

The luminous Adele Bloch-Bauer was not only the model in the painting but the convenor of a renowned Austrian salon in the early 20th century where she hosted the likes of Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Johannes Brahms, Arthur Schnitzler and of course Klimt. The film reveals that when the Nazi’s annexed Austria they raided collections of wealthy Jewish people such as the Bloch-Bauers, stripping homes of priceless works of art including the portrait Woman in Gold.  After the war, the painting was given (allegedly according to Adele’s will) to the Austrian State Gallery.  In the 1990’s Adele’s niece Maria (Helen Mirren) an Austrian-Jewish woman who fled the Nazis during the Anschluss in 1938, discovered letters from her sister detailing an attempt to recover the painting from the Gallery.  Desperate to retrieve this enduring part of her family’s history, she enlisted young lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to pursue the case.  The Austrian Government was, however, not keen to give up the painting which led to a lengthy and emotionally draining series of court battles.

This is a fascinating story given a fairly pedestrian treatment here.  The film plays like a tele-movie mixing rudimentary courtroom scenes with more intimate moments of personal drama.  The film also relies on some comically stereotyped humourless, intractable Germanic types among the Austrian bureaucrats. The film employs a similar character dynamic to Philomena with the pragmatic and slightly cynical younger educated man accompanying a pugnacious older woman on a painful emotional journey into her past.  Mirren plays Maria as a feisty, quick-witted woman who nonetheless battles debilitating memories of her family’s tragic fate.  Her recollections of her shattered family provide the most emotionally potent moments in the film.  Maria doesn’t just want the painting for its financial value, a sense of ownership, to honour her aunt or to try to salve tortured memories of her family being torn apart, she also wants to make Austrians aware of the country’s Nazi past.

Ryan Reynolds plays young lawyer Schoenberg as an erratic, slightly goofy yet driven character who is determined to establish himself after his practice collapses and to live up to his esteemed family name; his father is the great composer Arnold Schoenberg.  The film is also about Randol acknowledging the impact the holocaust has on his family and this aspect of the film provides some very touching scenes.  Daniel Bruhl also appears in a small but pivotal role as investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin who was equally committed to the goal of returning the painting to Maria and having the Austrian Government acknowledge the painting’s provenance.  Katy Holmes pops up sporadically as Schoenberg’s wife in a role that is strangely underwritten and peripheral for such a big name actress.

While not riveting in its execution, the twists and turns of the story as well as the poignant reflections on a tragic period in human history make Woman in Gold a worthy and at times moving drama.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Simon Curtis.

Release date: 21st May 2015.

Running time: 109 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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