I have to say that I am very impressed with Ryan Reynolds as he returns to the silver screen many years after a disastrous try at Green Lantern. He is an underrated actor who is capable of bringing real depth to whatever character he is playing, which is why teaming him up with Helen Mirren insured that Woman In Gold would be a riveting tale of real-life court navigation in the pursuit of Austria’s most famous painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
I knew nothing of this story until I stepped into the theater to watch it. All I really had to go on was a recommendation from one of the cinema’s regulars who told me that Mirren was fantastic in the film, and that it was a moving story. So, I decided to see this instead of Fast 7. I’m really glad I chose this.
In short, the story follows the true tale of Maria Altmann (Mirren) who, upon her sister’s death, finds a bundle of letters containing information regarding their aunt’s stolen paintings during the Nazi occupation of Austria. Maria wants those paintings to be returned to her since they were stolen by force, and she especially wants the golden painting of her aunt to see justice. Up until now, a famous museum in Austria has built its foundation on this painting and it refuses to give it up. Maria enlists the help of an inexperienced lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds) who risks everything to get the painting back. Needless to say, the pursuit is neither quick nor easy.
Running parallel to the present day story is a series of flashbacks to Altmann’s younger days living in a beautiful Austria. It was incredible to see how her family, who had come with nothing when they arrived in the country, built a life of prosperity that included many priceless works of art. Unfortunately, all of these pieces would be taken in a brutal scene halfway through the film, followed by a harrowing chase sequence to see if Altmann escapes. Of course, we know that she does, but the sense of entrapment and the fear for your life was so potent in this film.
At one point, now safely in America, Maria is practicing English – preparing for her new life. Suddenly a man comes rushing in asking, “Which one of you is Maria Altmann?” Nervously, Maria says, “I am her.” It is then that the man reaches out and hands her a piece of paper, saying, “Telegram for you.” It was this scene that stuck out for me the most. You could see the great difference between Austria and America. In Austria, if someone came and asked for you, it was because your life was going to be taken from you. In America, it was because you had a message to read. What a humbling juxtaposition.
This film frustrated me in a good way. I spent the entire time fighting for the painting, along with the characters, only to be time and time again batted into defeat. I could only imagine what the real Maria Altmann felt as she waited years to see the paintings of her family brought to justice. This film showcased one country’s greed and dispassion for a group of people who had everything taken from them. At one point, Schoenberg succeeds at filing a request for Adele Block-Bauer’s records. When it is revealed that it could take years before they hear a response, he uses a friend’s contact to sneak into the court of records to search for the paperwork personally with Maria. We are met with a massive vault of paperwork, boxes, and carts. “You have a long day ahead of you,” the insider tells them. Perhaps all the clutter is done on purpose to thwart those seeking the return of their family’s heirlooms – if their whereabouts are known at all.
But, Woman In Gold wasn’t just about getting the physical paintings back – nor was that Altmann’s sole motivation. This woman was seeking closure to one of the most horrific events in our world’s history. The ending of the film brought me to tears with a powerful performance from Mirren, accentuated by an honest portrayal of young Altmann by Tatiana Maslany. “Remember us,” Altmann’s father says to her as she prepares to flee the country that has taken everything from her. “And learn to be happy again.” It seems an impossible task, but, with the help of Shoenberg, Maria works her way towards happiness and closure. She also gives hope to all those whose lives were taken from them back in the 1940’s.