to Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele
Bloch-Bauer, art lovers around the world will instantly recognize Maria
Altmann’s beloved aunt and her iconic choker necklace. After the annexation of
Austria, Bloch-Bauer’s necklace found its way into the possession of Herman
Goering’s wife, while her stunning portrait was plundered by Vienna’s Belvedere
Gallery. For years, it was the cornerstone of their collection, but Altmann filed
a restitution claim as the last surviving Bloch-Bauer heir that ultimately
forced Austria to confront its National Socialist past. Altmann’s dramatic
early years in Austria and her protracted legal battle are chronicled in Simon
Curtis’s The Woman in Gold (trailer here), which opens this
Wednesday in New York.
Bloch-Bauers were a wealthy, assimilated Jewish Austrian family with a
reputation for supporting the arts. This was especially true of Adele
Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s childless aunt. The Bauer sisters had married the Bloch
brothers, so the entire family lived together in their elegant Elisabethstrasse
home during Adele’s lifetime. Sadly, Adele Bloch-Bauer died tragically
prematurely from meningitis in 1925, but she would be spared the horrors that
her family would face. She also made quite an impression on young Altmann,
which is why her portrait meant more to the niece than its mere one hundred
million dollar-plus estimated value.
years, the Belvedere simply dubbed the painting “The Woman in Gold” to disguise
its Jewish provenance, but the world knew it for what it was. Eventually,
Austria announced a new restitution process, in hopes of improving its
post-Waldheim image, but it was mostly just for show. Altmann and her initially
reluctant lawyer Randol Schoenberg (grandson of the composer) make a good faith
try to work within the Austrian legal framework, but soon find a more
hospitable reception in the U.S. Federal court system. Whether or not Altmann
even has standing to sue the Belvedere, an agency of a foreign government,
becomes the crux of the litigation dramatized in the film.
and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell nicely illuminate the various legal
technicalities of the case without getting bogged down in excessive detail.
Curtis also juggles the 1938 Austrian timeline with the more contemporary legal
drama rather adroitly. He was particularly fortunate to find such a convincing
younger analog for Dame Helen Mirren in Orphan
Black’s Tatiana Maslany, who grew up listening to her German language
speaking parents in their Canadian household.
course, Dame Helen dominates the film and she is terrific as usual. She
projects Altmann’s regal bearing as well as her no-nonsense pragmatism. While
Schoenberg’s character is somewhat underwritten in the first two acts, Ryan Reynolds
capitalizes on some crucial humanizing moments down the stretch. He gives some
bite to what might otherwise been a relatively milquetoast role.
the other hand, Katie Holmes really has nothing interesting to do as Schoenberg’s
wife, Pam—and never elevates the thankless part either. However, Jonathan Pryce
absolutely kills it in his too brief scene as Chief Justice William Rehnquist,
portraying the jurist as quite a witty and gracious gentleman, which is rather
sporting of the film, considering he ruled against Altmann in his dissent.
Curtis does justice to a fascinating story with far reaching political and
cultural implications. He helms with a sensitive hand, while maintaining a
healthy pace. Frankly, it represents a marked improvement over My Week with Marilyn, which always
seemed to focus on the blandest actor in any given scene. That never happens in
a Dame Helen film. Still, the documentary The Rape of Europa remains the most authoritative and comprehensive cinematic word
on the disputed ownership of Portrait of
Adele Bloch-Bauer and the systematic National Socialist looting of Jewish property
in general (catch up with it now, if you haven’t already). Highly recommended (in
its own right) for general audiences, Woman
in Gold opens nationwide this Wednesday (4/1), including the venerable
single-screen Paris Theatre in New York.
Labels: Helen Mirren, Nazi Looting, Ryan Reynolds