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Review: ‘Woman in Gold’ Glitters

Helen Mirren has become like Meryl Streep: nearly every time she has a leading role a little alarm goes off that signals “Oscar.” In this deeply emotional drama with a surprisingly light touch from Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), Dame Helen plays Maria Altmann. Who? The Jewish Austrian refugee living in Los Angeles who seeks the restitution of her aunt’s portrait by Gustav Klimt, then the jewel in the crown of Austria’s Belvedere Museum, a property transfer curtesy of the Nazis. Because of Altmann, that painting now hangs in the Neue Galerie on East 86th Street for you to see every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Its subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer has been liberated in perpetuity.

Altmann walked away from her wealthy, cultured parents – and their portrait of Aunt Adele – with nothing more than the clothes on her back and her husband, an opera singer, at her side. In this screenplay written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, the lushness of Altmann’s lost past, as gilded as her aunt’s portrait, contrasts with a present that unfolds with a thriller’s tension. When Altmann’s sister dies, Maria discovers letters that reveal a claim on the painting. She enlists the very green lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, cast against type) to pursue her claim on the $100 million masterpiece. As it turns out, he has skin in the game, too: he is the grandson of the influential Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Reynolds at last has a role to play where he keeps his shirt on. While the star of Green Lantern and The Proposal is not a natural strong, broody type, his performance grows as his character gradually bonds with Altmann. While pleading her case here and abroad, the lawyer confronts a Nazi past that forced his grandfather to flee to America in 1934 and dispatched other relatives to die in Treblinka. His awakening from denial is an arc he accomplishes with a welcome restraint.

History is a catalog of injustice, of the rape of cultures and pillage of artworks, but Woman in Gold works a single thread for all its worth. Even the title, once understood, shows how the Nazi’s scrubbed Klimt’s 1907 painting, originally titled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, of its Jewish provenance. The drama reveals the desire both to destroy and possess, to deny an entire race and yet embrace a portrait of a Jewish woman that comes to symbolize Austria’s artistic greatness.

Women in Gold, at its heart, is the human-scaled portrait of Adele’s niece, a woman of culture born in privilege shipwrecked on an alien shore. Her comfort as a senior in the California smog-shine may deceive others but not a day passes where she forgets her origins and what the Nazis took from her: a painting and a patrimony. And in every moment, gesture and look, Mirren captures a woman of grace and beauty, grounded in reality because she has no choice.

Sr. Editor, Film

April 8, 2014


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