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Woman in Gold

April 5, 2015
Woman in Gold

I have rarely seen a man so utterly outclassed as I did while watching Woman In Gold. And I don’t mean Randol “Randy” Schoenberg; by all accounts he was inexperienced when he helped Maria Altmann recover five paintings by Gustav Klimt that were stolen by the Nazis during the Austrian Anschluss, but he came through for her in the end. No, I mean the man portraying Schoenberg, Ryan Reynolds. He is far out of his depth — especially next to Helen Mirren playing Maria — and a pair of costume glasses don’t help.

Nazi art theft seems to be the latest craze in the ever-popular Holocaust genre, and Altmann’s case does present quite a story. The portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was not merely lost or destroyed in the chaos of World War II. Indeed, it was on prominent display in the Belvedere, the national art gallery of Austria, and as well-known in that country as the Mona Lisa. It’s the “other Klimt”, if your college roommate didn’t have a poster of The Kiss.

And yet it wasn’t until Altmann’s sister died in 1998 — according to the movie, at least — that she found some half-century old letters from the family’s lawyer in Vienna, stating that the Belvedere claimed the paintings on the basis of a clause in Adele’s 1925 will which nobody seemed to have seen, and the validity of which was in serious question. Luckily this was also around the time that Austria decided to open up the archives and hold hearings to at least put on a show of putting their collaborationist past behind them. Altmann enlisted Schoenberg, the son of a family friend, to represent her case.

It’s such a good story, in fact, that it’s been told in film at least three times before, in Adele’s Wish, Stealing Klimt, and as a significant part of The Rape of Europa. But those were documentaries, so I suppose they don’t really count for most moviegoers. They certainly emphasized the facts over the smarmy sentimentality that suffuses Woman in Gold.

For one thing, it offers probably the gentlest Nazi invasion I’ve ever seen. Yes, we all know by now what lay in store for them, but from what this movie shows the Germans moved in and rousted out the Jews without anyone so much as throwing a punch, except when the young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) flees Vienna in an action-packed sequence.

The bulk of the time, though, is taken up with the current-day story of Altmann and Schoenberg trying to work through various court and arbitration systems, and it consists almost exclusively of clichés and fabrications that simplify the details of the story into a nice, easily-digestible pablum.

Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), the journalist who was actually responsible for turning up the foundational paperwork from the Austrian archives, is relegated to a minor supporting role. On the other hand, the hearing before the Supreme Court of the United States is elevated to climactic importance, and in the movie it’s won largely on the basis of “she’s obviously right”, and “this case doesn’t need to set a precedent”, which are irrelevant and completely backwards, respectively, to the actual case of Republic of Austria v. Altmann. And even that might be forgiven if it didn’t throw the pacing completely off-kilter, staged like the Big Win when there’s about half an hour of the film left to run at that point.

Maybe Reynolds’ casting was meant to mirror Schoenberg’s relative inexperience at the time, though in practice it ends up being more ridiculous than evocative. And maybe the filmmakers chose to reflect traditional European Jewish cooking with their large doses of schmaltz. Whatever their reasons, the result is an uneven and sickeningly sweet mess.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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