Plunder undone

Time for some <i>Orphan Gold</i>.

Time for some Orphan Gold.

Rated 4.0

Woman in Gold plows similar ground to last year’s The Monuments Men, dealing as it does with the theft of European art by the Nazis before and during World War II. But unlike Monuments Men, Woman in Gold follows the facts with reasonable fidelity. And it tells its story from the other end of history, beginning in 1998.

But first, there’s a prologue. The hands of an artist carefully prepare a small sheet of gold leaf, then apply it to the surface of a portrait he’s painting. We know going in that the artist is the Viennese master Gustav Klimt, and the painting is “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I,” or “Woman in Gold.”

There’s a brief exchange in subtitled German. “Adele,” the artist says, “you seem upset. What’s worrying you?” “The future,” the woman sighs. Ahem. Klimt’s masterpiece was painted in 1907, in the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the cataclysm of the Great War—to say nothing of Adolf Hitler—was still years in the future. Putting these words into Adele’s mouth gives the impression that the storm clouds of the Anschluss are gathering right outside the window.

But that’s the last false note. From this point on, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s script rings entirely true, with only minor changes well within the bounds of dramatic license.

The story is inspiring: In 1999, one Maria Altmann—a Vienna-born Jewish woman who fled Austria with her husband just before the outbreak of World War II, later becoming an American citizen and settling in Los Angeles—sought restitution from the Austrian government for five Klimt paintings (including two portraits of her aunt Adele) that had been stolen from her family by Hitler’s thugs. Austria stonewalled, claiming that Adele, who died in 1925 well before Hitler’s rise, had willed the paintings to Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. With the help of her lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (whose grandfather, the composer Arnold Schoenberg, had also fled the Nazis in the 1930s), and Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, she eventually prevailed in a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, then back to Austria for binding arbitration.

In Woman in Gold, Maria Altmann is played by Helen Mirren, Schoenberg by Ryan Reynolds and Czernin by Daniel Brühl. In an apparent bow to Anglo-American star power, Czernin takes a back seat (in real life, his journalism prompted Altmann’s lawsuit rather than simply assisting it). It’s an easy change to forgive when the stars are as strong as these. Dame Helen, of course, is always a formidable presence; God have mercy on anyone who tries to thwart a character she plays. Equally formidable in his understated way is Reynolds, the Rodney Dangerfield of American actors—he don’t get no respect. (Just before the press screening I attended, a colleague and I were discussing a certain major star—who shall here remain nameless —who takes occasional breaks from the nitwit comedies that have made him rich and famous in a futile attempt to prove he can really act. At the end of Woman in Gold I turned to my friend and said, “Ryan Reynolds, on the other hand, has proven time and time again that he can act—and no one ever seems to notice.”)

With Campbell’s intelligent script and Simon Curtis’ smooth direction (My Week with Marilyn) tastefully pushing all the right buttons, Woman in Gold makes an immensely satisfying David-and-Goliath story, spiced ever so subtly with just a dash of once-a-Nazi-always-a-Nazi schadenfreude. This, in fact, is where Daniel Brühl’s Hubertus Czernin comes in—his earnest dedication to justice for Mrs. Altmann offers a balm to Austrian sensibilities and a counterbalance to the smugly infuriating parade of Teutonic bureaucrats, culture ministers and museum officials coldly throwing obstacles in her path.

With the well-matched Nellie Schilling and Tatiana Maslany playing Maria Altmann as a child and young woman, Woman in Gold movingly dramatizes the old lady’s haunting past as well as her present determination to get what’s rightfully hers. At the end, it makes us want to cheer, seeing that sometimes the good guys really do win—even if it takes 70 years and the gumption of a Helen Mirren to get the job done.