I’m a movie-goer, not a movie critic. My criteria for what makes a fine film is simple. I ask these questions: Did it move me? Did it cause me to feel, to care? After seeing Woman in Gold, the answer to those questions is a resounding yes.
Woman in Gold is about the famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. You’ve seen the painting—perhaps not the real painting, but almost certainly you have seen copies—it has been reproduced countless times in myriad ways, on postcards, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets. The film, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Rynolds, is based on the true story of Maria Altman and her fight to reclaim the portrait of her beloved Aunt Adele. It belonged to her family and once hung in her childhood home, a luxurious apartment in Vienna shared by her parents and her aunt and uncle. Along with all the treasures belonging to her family, the painting was taken by the Nazis, and it eventually wound up on the walls of the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. It became, as one character in the film stresses, “…the Mona Lisa of Austria.”
Maria Altman, played flawlessly by Helen Mirren, is a widow with a small clothing shop in Los Angeles. After the death of her sister, she discovers some papers that lead her to believe she may have a claim to the Klimt paintings that belonged to her family—paintings that have been the property of the Austrian government since World War II. Maria enlists help from the son of a family friend, the struggling young lawyer Randy Schoenberg, played ably by Ryan Reynolds.
Randy is the grandson of the famous composer Arnold Schoenberg. Hired to investigate the provenance of Woman in Gold, he initially takes the case only after he discovers that the painting is worth well over a hundred million dollars. He convinces his law firm to give him a week to go to Vienna, and it is there that he opens up to the loss of his own grandparents in the holocaust. Through experiencing that loss, he realizes that this case is about much more than money.
Along with persuading his law firm to let him pursue this case, Randy convinces Maria to travel with him to Vienna. Though she had sworn never to go back to the place where nearly everyone and everything she loved was destroyed, she recognizes the importance of making her case personally before Austria’s Art Restitution Board.
For Maria, the past is everywhere in the city of Vienna. Her memories are brought to life in scenes which beautifully convey the love of a close-knit family and the rich heritage of her home, a home where the great artists, musicians, and notables of the time once gathered. I was deeply moved by those scenes. They tell, in capsulated form, the story of this family in a time before Hitler, and they brought to mind every home where families and friends gather—the homes where we live out our ordinary routines and mark the exceptional events of a lifetime.
At one level, this is a courtroom drama, though the courtrooms are in grand settings. As courtroom drama, it is a case brought by one woman against a nation, and argued by a lone young lawyer against a slew of government lawyers. Even if you know the outcome of this drama, it is compelling to watch it unfold. But the courtroom drama serves a deeper story. Woman in Gold made me think about the place of art in our lives and the value of one’s personal heritage. Most of all, it reminded me of the crucial and essential necessity of respecting each person’s dignity and equality. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party, all the basic tenets of a civilized society were swept aside and then crushed underfoot. We were left with only man’s inhumanity to man, and the horror of the holocaust.
I cried in this film. I shed tears for Maria Altman and all she had lost. I also cried for the injustices of our own time— for those being brutalized and terrorized by ISIS and al Qaeda, for girls seeking an education being attacked in Pakistan and stolen from their families in Nigeria, for dancers being arrested and imprisoned in Iran, for black men being gunned down in America by those sworn to protect them. The bullies and thugs of the world come in many guises, claiming various reasons for their right to oppress and rule. They have no right. They wield power by inflicting pain, and no matter how slick their message, no matter the cut or color of their uniform, they are bullies, nothing more. They turn both our dreams and realities into nightmares, and steal all our joy in living.
Can one film bring all this to mind? Yes. Woman in Gold is the story of one woman, one family, one painting. It is also about all of us: our families, our art, all our heritage and humanity. I urge you to see it.