Reeling it in: Fascinating story carries ‘The Woman in Gold’

“The Woman in Gold”

Weinstein Company

1 hour, 49 minutes

There are a million great stories about art and artists down through the ages, probably because artists are such an eccentric group, but the stories that come out of World War II are exceptionally amazing. The Nazis did their utmost to try and obliterate an entire race of people, and were not above grabbing everything of value those people owned, especially some of the world’s most important works of art.

When high ranking members of the Third Reich took work from public spaces and off Jewish walls to adorn their own private homes, they proved themselves to be no better than common thieves rather than the ideologues they saw themselves. In the years since the war, there has been a major effort to reunite these stolen items of value with the surviving family members from which they were stolen. But it’s not all so cut and dried. One such piece of stolen art took a particularly circuitous route to restitution, detailed in this week’s film, “The Woman in Gold.”

“The Woman in Gold” opens on a bearded man, half in shadow, applying gold leaf to a portrait he is painting. This very brief glimpse is all we get of either Gustav Klimt, the artist of the titular painting, or of his technique, the age-old process of applying real gold to a work of art. It’s too bad — I would have liked more of this, but in a movie that’s already chock full of story, I can see why this part got dropped.

From here we race ahead and meet our actual protagonists, Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles lawyer and grandson of the great Austrian composer, and Maria Altmann, an elderly shop owner who also happens to be the niece of the actual “woman in gold.” The painting was completed in 1907, a commission by Maria’s uncle, and hung in their family home until the Nazi occupation which forced a newly married Maria and her husband to flee to America. All of the family’s possessions were seized, and those who didn’t escape, died in poverty under Nazi occupation.

From there, the painting, along with four other Klimts, ended up on display in the Belvedere Palace, having been “bought” from Nazi Germany by the Austrian Government in 1941.

Zoom ahead to 1999 and the Austrians, in a goodwill gesture, established a commission to provide restitution to those whose lives had been stolen. Altmann, upon hearing about the commission, hires Schoenberg, the son of a family friend, to investigate whether there is any chance she can retrieve her family’s property.

The case isn’t so simple, however. The painting, more properly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” had, in the intervening years, become the most celebrated work in Austria, embodying the national cultural consciousness. One character describes the painting as the Austrian Mona Lisa. Naturally, most Austrians either don’t know the painting’s history or have chosen to ignore it.

What follows is a long and difficult legal battle for the art, punctuated with stirring flashbacks to Maria’s past.

“The Woman in Gold” is frustrating because it’s perfectly adequate, but not great. The story is mind-blowing, but the movie, while hitting all the beats, never fully delivers. Part of the problem could have been the majority of the film focuses on the present day legal battle which is interesting, but too dry to really provide much real drama.

Stars Ryan Reynolds, as Schoenberg, and Helen Mirren, as Altmann, bring their own issues to the table. I can’t help but think Reynolds was miscast. He’s doing his best, but his usually smarmy, jokey demeanor was hard to shake and wasn’t a great fit for this conflicted character.

Mirren does a marvelous job, but she’s by far the brightest, showiest thing in the film, besides the titular painting itself. She’s almost too much.

The best parts of the film are the flashbacks, and I was disappointed every time we’d leave them to come back to the main story. The biggest problem with the movie, I think, is the script. Much of the dialogue is obvious, the exposition ham-handed, and many of the emotional beats are clumsily handled. The film feels like it gets better as it goes along, it’s only because the audience comes to accept the deficiencies and tries to ignore them.

My wife summed it up perfectly by saying the movie is like watching TV. You don’t necessarily tune in to the movie of the week because it’s great cinema, you watch it to find out how the guy murdered his wife and ran off with his lover to Bolivia eventually gets caught.

In short, I enjoyed “The Woman in Gold” in spite of its problems, because the story is, as I said, pretty amazing.

The book that inspired the film, “The Lady in Gold,” (why one is “woman” and the other “lady” I have no idea) apparently takes a much wider view of the story, focusing more on Klimt and the painting’s relevance in post-war Europe. The tale of the legal battle surrounding the painting is only the last little bit of the book, a fitting epilogue to a grand history.

I’m not sure switching the balance of the film that drastically would have been a good idea either, because “Woman in Gold” has a lot to say about the difficulty of determining ownership decades later and the character of national guilt. As it stands, however, “The Woman in Gold” gives us the driest parts of the story in great detail while offering glances at the heartbreaking drama underneath.

Grade: B-

“The Woman in Gold” is rated PG-13 for language and brief violence.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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