Thursday, April 14, 2016

Woman in Gold Movie Review

I’m a big “West Wing” fan, so excuse me if you don’t know what I’m referring to when I say, “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.” That is a line from “Posse Comitatus,” the season 3 finale and the lynchpin moment when President Bartlett decides he’s going to take it to his opponent in the election. Woman in Gold is the Holocaust equivalent of that sentiment, an empty gesture at acknowledging something inexplicably awful.

Woman in Gold is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee from Vienna who fled just after the start of the Nazi occupation and settled in California. She came from a society family who hobnobbed with artists like Gustav Klimt, the man who painted the eponymous portrait. The woman in portrait is Maria’s aunt Adele and it was stolen by the Nazis (not at all an uncommon story) and eventually found its way into Vienna’s art museum, where it resided for decades as a national treasure. But in the late 90s, Austria, in an attempt to cleanse its image as a latter-day Nazi state, changed its laws with regard to art restitution, opening the floodgates for claims on everything Austria thought was hers. A protracted international legal battle ensued and, I’ll spoil the suspense, she got her painting back after several years, achieving the most significant victory in the most unlikely of places for an international art restitution dispute – the U.S. Supreme Court. A technicality permitted her to sue the Austrian government in the United States.

Helen Mirren is a wonderful actress who gets caught sleepwalking through what is essentially a vacant role as Maria. There’s hardly a cliché left untouched in her character development of a stern and severe Austrian woman. She rarely allows any glimpse of the inner workings of Maria’s mind. It’s all surface. Ryan Reynolds does his best at stand-up work as Randy Schoenberg, her lawyer and the son of a close friend and grandson of Arthur Schoenberg, the Austrian composer whom Maria knew in her Vienna society days. Reynolds is hardly up to the task of such drama. He only half-convincingly portrays the lawyer who, by some ethical compulsion, gives up his job and puts his family at risk in order to do what’s right.

There’s a compelling story here even just in the idea of this Klimt painting that the world looks at, seeing an anonymous woman, while Maria sees her aunt Adele, a woman who helped raise her, loved her, was there for her through childhood. The personal resonance of the painting itself and the fact of its theft from the family should have been reason enough to give it back. But in the screenplay by ???, this story becomes a dull courtroom and legal procedural. It’s all process and little pathos. When it reaches for deeper emotion, it succeeds only in platitudes and mere clichés about the horror and indignity of the Holocaust.

Honestly, by the time all the international legal wrangling has been completed and Maria receives her favorable verdict, we have heard so many earnest speeches about justice, honor, atrocities committed by entire nations, and refusal to recognize culpability that our senses are just dulled by it.

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