June 2024

Woman In Gold (2015)

DIRECTOR: Simon Curtis

CAST: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Tatiana Maslany, Katie Holmes, Max Irons


Hollywood likes stories about lawyers crusading for a righteous cause.  On the surface, Woman In Gold is another generic entry, but its sometimes powerful true story, a split narrative chronicling two time periods, an unsurprisingly strong performance from Helen Mirren and, perhaps somewhat more surprisingly, capable support by Ryan Reynolds helps lend it more weight and impact than just a courtroom drama.

In the 1930s, Austrian Jew Maria Altmann (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband Fritz (Max Irons) escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria but were forced to leave family members behind to certain doom, along with a beloved painting depicting her late Aunt Adele done by famous painter Gustav Klimt.  In the late 1990s, the elderly Maria (Helen Mirren), who has spent the intervening decades in the United States, attempts to get the painting back, but “The Woman In Gold” has become “The Mona Lisa of Austria” and a national icon, and the Austrian government is unwilling to part with it, considering it rightful state property.  To aid in her legal struggle, Maria turns to family friend, young inexperienced lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who is himself of Austrian-Jewish descent as the grandson of famous composer Arnold Schoenberg and the son of a respected judge but wallowing in the shadow of his prestigious lineage under student loan debts and a failed attempt at starting his own law firm.  Initially, Randy is reluctant to get invested in Maria’s legal struggle but gets involved after a little grudging bonding (and after doing a little research and realizing the painting in question is valued at over $100 million).  But their efforts in Austria are rebuffed and, apart from Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), they have few allies.  But the initially leery Randy becomes dedicated to Maria’s cause (in fact, in an ironic turn-around, it’s Randy who keeps the case going for a time after Maria grows discouraged), ultimately suing the Austrian government in US court and taking the battle all the way up to the Supreme Court.

Opening in the “present” in 1998 Los Angeles, we periodically alternate back-and-forth in time between two storylines, Maria and Randy’s legal struggle (which spans 1998-2004), and flashbacks to the Altmann family’s plight in Nazi-occupied Austria of the 1930s and Maria and her husband Fritz’s getaway.  While the lion’s share of the screentime goes to the Maria/Randy story, the filmmakers manage to make both plotlines engaging, avoiding the annoyance of one interesting storyline being interrupted by a more mundane one, as is sometimes the case in narrative-splitting approaches like this.  For obvious reasons, there’s more tension and a darker tone in the flashbacks, where the stakes are literally life-and-death (the sequence depicting their actual narrow escape generates a surprising amount of suspense, considering we obviously already know Maria survives), but we also become engrossed in the details of the “present day” back-and-forth legal struggle.  The two timelines help connect the dots of how the past affects the present, as well as illuminating the ways in which the Nazis not only tried to exterminate the Jewish people, but also carried out wholesale theft of the possessions they left behind.  We learn that one of the Altmanns’ paintings ended up hanging in no less a place than Hitler’s private mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, while Aunt Adele’s favorite gold necklace ended up on the neck of the wife of Hermann Goering.  At one point, Maria and Randy visit the very art studio where a young Adolf Hitler unsuccessfully applied to be an art student.  One theme the movie implicitly addresses is how easily people forget the past, especially an unpleasant one, with the present-day Austrian government wishing to sweep unsavory aspects of its history under the rug.  Woman in Gold repudiates the idea that time erases the sins of the past.  Not all Austrians are hostile to Maria’s goals (Daniel Brühl‘s Hubertus Czernin serves as a counter-example), but the extent to which the Austrian government obstinately digs in its heels and uses all the bureaucratic red tape it can muster to thwart she and Randy is sadly telling.  The crimes of the Nazis should not have a statute of limitations.  The modern-day Austrian government may not be responsible for events of WWII, but it does bear a moral and (as was ultimately determined) legal obligation to return stolen possessions to the surviving owners (or their heirs).

Helen Mirren, sporting dark hair and imbuing her regal British accent with a more Germanic tinge (though her Britishness sometimes seeps through), is her usual delightful self, playing the older Maria with a sense of long-suffering weary dignity, an acerbic tongue, and an unflappable determination.  Ryan Reynolds, looking toned-down and slightly nerdy behind glasses and a buttoned-down wardrobe, initially feels like a lightweight next to Mirren, but as Randy’s conviction grows, he does a capable job of traversing the cliched character arc of the initially disinterested lawyer who becomes emotionally invested in his client’s struggle, and he and Mirren make an effective “odd couple”.  In supporting roles, German actor Daniel Brühl (probably best-known to American audiences as race car driver Niki Lauda opposite Chris Hemsworth in 2013’s sports drama Rush) is their biggest Austrian supporter, Hubertus Czernin (whose previous claim to fame was exposing the Nazi past of former Austrian President Kurt Waldheim), and Tatiana Maslany (of television series Orphan Black) plays the younger Maria.  Other smaller roles include Max Irons (son of Jeremy) as the young Maria’s husband Fritz, Katie Holmes as Randy’s wife, the ever-stern Charles Dance as Randy’s law firm boss, Frances Fisher as Randy’s mother, Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Antje Traue (Man of Steel‘s Faora) as Aunt Adele, the “Woman In Gold”.

Woman In Gold occasionally feels that events are shallowly skimmed-through due to the compressed passage of time (1998-2004 in an hour and forty-nine minutes, not to mention the significant flashback sequences which take up a fair amount of screentime).  Randy’s wife seems to have an abrupt turn-around in attitude that might have seemed less arbitrary had Randy’s family life been more than fleetingly sketched-out.  But the movie serves up a history lesson worth hearing (one recalls George Santayana’s quote “those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”) and has some poignant and moving moments while also, like most effective courtroom dramas, infusing the proceedings with a crowd-pleasing element.  Ultimately, it works both as a reminder of past wrongs and a demonstration that sometimes the truth prevails.  Justice and historical truth should not have a statute of limitations.

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