Woman in Gold (2015) received somewhat tepid reviews and, in some cases, actual dismissiveness. Some of us may have gone to see it for Helen Mirren, hoping that she would be enough to raise it at least to the level of “a decent small film”. Many viewers may agree that the word “small” doesn’t really come to mind.
In scale and tone, Woman in Gold operates on something of a par with 2013’s Philomena in which Judi Dench gave a superbly graceful performance. Neither is a large canvas and in each a great actor chooses to etch character with very fine— almost inward rather than vivid—strokes, yet both films manage to leave us with a sense of capaciousness.
Is it not all it might have been? Yes. Is it at times a bit formulaic? Yes. However, it manages to accrue a subtle power and if you’ve not seen it because of certain reviews you may be surprised at being so engaged by it. Woman in Gold has no memorable originality or sense of verve in its construction. It is rather workmanlike and quiet, but it is grounded in Helen Mirren’s restrained and delicately absorbing performance, and it is something more than the sum of its parts.
Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) with a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, the film is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian Jewish woman who escaped the Nazis and found a home in the U.S. where, fifty years later, she began a sensational legal campaign to reclaim from the Austrian government several paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis—chiefly Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”, the dazzling woman in gold of the title. She did so not just to regain this portrait of her beloved aunt which was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis. When Altmann’s last surviving sister dies, she finds letters linked to the Nazi theft, and hires a young lawyer (an appealing Ryan Reynolds) to seek art restitution.
The film is an intimate weaving of two stories—the contemporary development of the case eventually struggling all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, with its odd-couple pairing of Altmann and her callow attorney, and the collapse of the young Maria’s well-to-do and highly cultured family under the horror of Hitler’s Anschluss in Austria in 1938. The younger Maria is played by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian, and she is riveting. The production design by Jack Clay and art direction by Dominic Masters (particularly for the 1938 scenes) are wonderfully evocative in both texture and palette. Mirren portrays Altmann with understated but kaleidoscopic shrewdness: this is a woman who in her long life has known, simultaneously in any moment, joy, horror, depravity, humor, courage. Her strength can sometimes manifest itself with peremptory saltiness—she can be edgy and difficult—but often she evinces generous compassion and enlivening humor. (Her influence in helping her young attorney achieve new realizations about his own sense of purpose and family history lends added dimension to the narrative.) At every moment Mirren’s performance has an ineffable dignity.
After one stage early in the public hearings in Vienna, Altmann leaves the building and starts down the steps. She is momentarily accosted by a man enraged by her efforts to gain restitution for the famed Klimt painting that has become “the Mona Lisa of Austria”. He sneers at her: “You people. You know—everything isn’t about The Holocaust!”
Woman in Gold becomes more than a film about international art restitution precisely because—in its quiet thoughtfulness and personal framing—it disproves that statement: in a very real sense everything is about the Holocaust. In its refusal to take us beyond the scope of its modest cinematic ambitions, this film drills deep with a sharp focus and, in the end, resonant strength. It is the story of Maria Altmann, but it could be the story of any one of us, in any place, on any day of any year. Woman in Gold moves and provokes us with some fundamental truths about the ongoing necessity of facing personal and cultural histories at their most unimaginably inhumane if we are ever to imagine, or resolve to live, anything like our better selves.