Woman in Gold is a film version of a ‘true story’ that has, as one reviewer put it, been ‘Weinsteined’ to within an inch of its life. This means that it is quite difficult to discuss without dealing with all the opprobrium that producer Harvey Weinstein in particular attracts. The Weinstein touch means that what would otherwise be a mainstream, middlebrow film stuffed with good performances has been accused of all kinds of terrible crimes against history and the representation of arguments about ‘art restitution’ that might be expected from a sober art picture. If we ignore the hot air created by the most violent attacks, this is a crowd-pleasing film marred for some audiences by misjudged action sequences and cartoon villains. At its centre is another striking performance by Helen Mirren that will no doubt attract admirers. However, although her exaggerated Austrian-accented English might be justified by the script, she does create a character that is probably too much like some of her other well-known portrayals.
Mirren plays Maria Altman, a woman who we later learn escaped the Holocaust, literally running from the SS in Vienna in 1938. The narrative begins in 1998 when she hires a lawyer to attempt to get back a painting of her aunt stolen by the Nazis and now hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. (The events of 1938 are represented through detailed flashbacks at various points of the narrative.) The lawyer she chooses is ‘Randy’ (Randol), the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg (who left Vienna for the US at the same time as Maria). Played by Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds as a tall, intelligent but also rather nervous/vulnerable young man with wire-rimmed spectacles, Randy kept reminding me of Jimmy Stewart playing the lead in The Glenn Miller Story. When I looked later the resemblance isn’t that close but he certainly has some of that tension between hesitancy and forcefulness that Stewart used so effectively in similar kinds of roles. The film is in effect a two-hander and Reynolds does well to hold his own with Mirren. (I hadn’t seen Reynolds before and his performance seems to have been a surprise for those who know him from action films such as Green Lantern (2011) or X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).)
The drama in the story depends on two aspects of the painting (Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907) – one is the ‘personal’, involving the portrait of a beloved aunt and the trigger to remember those left behind during the attacks on Jewish families that followed the Anschluss of 1938. The other is the fact that the painting, one of five commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and painted by Gustav Klimt, was already worth around $100 million in 1998 and was considered a ‘national treasure’ of Austria. The designation ‘Woman in Gold’ was used by the Nazis to describe the painting. These factors underpin the determination of Maria and the Austrian gallery curators to fight a bitter battle through various courts to establish ownership. Unfortunately, the Austrian characters are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner and the merits of their case (i.e. the other issues in the arguments about ‘art restitution’) are lost in the general feelgood tenor of the campaign as conducted by Maria and Randy.
The film ‘works’ for its target audience (the over 50s?) and it is driven by its casting. Director Simon West is a very experienced producer/director in UK film and television and this is a co-production with BBC films. The supporting cast includes cameos from Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce and Charles Dance while the 1938 sequences include performances by Henry Goodman and Allan Corduner. Three prominent German actors appear. Tom Schilling and Moritz Bleibtreu are seen only briefly but Daniel Brühl has a bigger role as Hubertus, a local journalist who supports Maria’s cause. Brühl is a strong actor in German cinema but now seems to pop up in ‘international’ productions in a predictable way. Here he is rather wasted I fear.
In genre terms the film is primarily, I think, a melodrama – which may be one of the reasons it has been traduced by reviewers who want it to be a Holocaust story or an investigative narrative. The focus is on Maria ‘now’ and the family as it was in 1938 (the starting point of the narrative is the death in Los Angeles of Maria’s sister). There is an attempt to draw some kind of parallel with Randy’s family ‘now’ – he takes risks with his career and his marriage to support Maria. I’m not sure this works. There is a melodrama score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer and I have to confess that my eyes were moist for much of the film. I’m a sucker for Hollywood sentimentality and my critical faculties didn’t kick in until the film ended. Some audiences have drawn parallels with Philomena (UK 2013). This didn’t occur to me but in retrospect I can see the links. Visually Woman in Gold depends on a distinction between the sunny present in Vienna and Southern California and the depiction of 1938 – still bright but with more sepia tones. The ‘escape’ of the young Maria seemed ludicrous to me. However I was impressed by the playing of young Maria by Tatiana Maslany, a Canadian actress making a name for herself in the TV series Orphan Black.
This film has a current IMDb rating of 7.5 indicating a strongly favourable audience response but the critics really didn’t like it. I’ve noted what I think are the weaknesses here but I understand why so many have enjoyed the film. One further point, I’ve called it a ‘Hollywood film’. This is mainly because of Harvey Weinstein’s influence. But even then it would be technically an American independent. In fact this is essentially a British film, with Harvey Weinstein as an executive producer. I’m not really sure why it is listed as a US production. Perhaps the Weinstein Company paid for distribution rights ‘up front’ and effectively co-financed the film?