If you’ve been to Vienna, you almost certainly have visited the Belvedere Schloss, the great Hapsburg estate now used mainly as an art museum—and you have therefore had a chance to view the Gustav Klimt masterpiece, The Kiss. If you visited before 2000, however, you would have seen Klimt’s other masterpiece, known at the time as the “Mona Lisa of Austria”: his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, known colloquial as the Woman in Gold. It’s not there anymore.
The new film from Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) starring Helen Mirren tells the story of why it isn’t, and why you can now see the painting here in the United States, at the Neue Galerie in New York City. The dramatic story of Maria Altmann’s (Helen Mirren) ultimately successful fight to recover the painting of her aunt Adele, stolen from her home by Nazis during the Anschluss of 1938, has been the subject of three previous documentaries (The Rape of Europa in 2006, Stealing Klimt in 2007, and Adele’s Wish in 2008), but is told here in narrative form for the first time.
The story begins in 1998, when Altmann, after the death of her sister, finds among her papers a record of a case dismissed 50 years earlier by the Austrian government, in which the family had tried to regain ownership of the Klimt portrait but were told that Adele herself had left the painting to the Belvedere in her will (which was never produced as evidence). Altmann enlists the aid of a young lawyer named Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds (The Proposal)—who happens to be the grandson of the famous Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg—and the two of them take on the Austrian art establishment and government and the American legal system all the way to the Supreme Court, and end up in an arbitration hearing back in Vienna. The film pulls no punches in depicting the Austrian government’s own shameful part in the affair, as unwilling to admit their own dark Nazi past.
The narrative alternates between the present day legal twists and turns of the case (in which Randol obsessively devotes himself to Maria’s case to the exclusion of his own wife and family and to the extent of losing his job) and the Vienna of the late ’30s in which we are shown the opulence of the Bloch-Bauer family and the threats, abuse, and larceny they suffer at the hands of the occupying Nazi forces. Maria and her husband ultimately attempt to flee the Nazis and come to America, but they must leave her parents behind, to an uncertain future under the Nazi regime.
These flashbacks are depicted as coming to Maria as she thinks of her past, and as memories are triggered when she visits Vienna for the first time in 60 years. These scenes of the past are more riveting than the rest of the film, and, even though we know that Maria escapes or she wouldn’t be having this memory, these scenes create more suspense than those set in the film’s present. Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria, is watchable and sympathetic as a strong-willed girl whom it is easy to imagine developing into the feisty Jewish grandmother that Maria becomes.
As for Mirren, she is as always remarkable in her performance, and she develops a believable chemistry with Reynolds, from the moment he enters her house and she scolds him like a mother for being ten minutes late but then forces strudel on him. Her frustrating wavering back and forth over whether she wants to pursue her case is understandable, though it ultimately drives Schoenberg past his limit. Reynolds is a little less believable: Perhaps anyone would look a little wooden acting next to Helen Mirren, but Reynolds is allowed only one scene of complex emotion, after he has visited the Holocaust memorial in Vienna and has come face to face with the Holocaust in his own family history. But I have a feeling there was a lot more to that side of Schoenberg that final cutting of the film eliminated: There are simply too many holes, and just a hint here and there about his motivations. He tells his wife that he went to Austria because of the money—The Woman in Gold has an estimated value of more than $100 million. But he has become obsessed with the case apparently for other reasons—we do see him later attend a concert of his grandfather’s music in Vienna. Other than that, however, we are left to guess at his emotional involvement.
More of a problem is Katy Holmes as Mrs. Schoenberg. We see her cuddling with her husband. We see her cleaning up dishes. We see her complaining when he quits his job without telling her. We see her telling him she supports him after all (we have no idea why). We see her leaving her house to have a baby. What we don‘t see is any kind of rational character arc for her or any scene in which either she or her husband has anything to say about their relationship. Again, and to a much larger extent than with Reynolds, it seems Katy Holmes’ part was either completely savaged in the cutting room, or was so poorly written to begin with that she was given nothing to work with.
There are a couple of remarkable smaller performances in the film: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds, Rush) is memorable as an Austrian journalist intent on persuading the government to do the right thing for Maria and other Holocaust victims, for, it turns out, significant reasons of his own. Elizabeth McGovern has a cameo as a smart and sympathetic judge, and Jonathan Pryce is delightful as Chief Justice William Rehnquist—who knew that man was such a jokester? But they don’t quite make up for the problems with Reynolds’ or with Holmes’ parts.
Overall, the film is an uplifting if a bit predictable story of justice achieved, of David defeating Goliath, of the ultimate triumph of virtue and the defeat of evil. The fact that it is a true story makes it all the more uplifting. And the film is beautiful, not only for the art but for the Viennese architecture and the cinematic recreation of the world of the 1930s. But in the end it could have been much better, if the Schoenbergs had been better realized. I’m going to give this two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.