Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
United Kingdom, 2015. Origin Pictures, BBC Films. Screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Cinematography by Ross Emery. Produced by David M. Thompson, Kris Thykier. Music by Martin Phipps, Hans Zimmer. Production Design by Jim Clay. Costume Design by Beatrix Aruna Pasztor. Film Editing by Peter Lambert.
A powerful story is given admirable if not remarkable treatment in this often moving drama. At the funeral of her sister, Austrian ex-patriate Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) approaches a family friend (Frances Fisher) and asks if the woman’s son, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who is a lawyer, can help her with a curious inquiry. Altmann has learned that Austria has undertaken an impressive project to restore artworks stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War to their rightful owners, and wonders if she has a case to go after one of her own: the Woman In Gold by Klimt is actually a portrait of her late aunt Adele and has been displayed in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery for decades despite actually belonging rightfully to her family. Schoenberg is inspired to take on her case, hitting their first roadblock when it is discovered that Adele had actually left the painting to the gallery in her will; unearthing further documentation clarifies a different ownership and entailment of the property, however, and Altmann and Schoenberg head to Vienna with renewed hope that they will succeed in their pursuit.
For Altmann, returning home is a difficult trip, she has never been back since fleeing Nazi persecution in the forties and had vowed never to go back to the place that had so easily allowed her and her kind to have their lives destroyed. She is not encouraged by what she finds, the buildings haven’t changed but the people haven’t either, she’s told by some onlookers to “get over” the Holocaust and, most daunting, meets with grave resistance from the committee in charge of the Art Restoration project, which has turned out be motivated mostly by the country’s wanting some good PR. A number of pieces have been given back to survivors or their families because they can be spared, but the Woman In Gold is Austria’s Mona Lisa and to give it up would require the nation to really challenge the principle that inspired the project in the first place. Returning home in defeat, Altmann and Schoenberg are disappointed until they discover a way to continue the fight, first by dragging the Austrian government into American courts (which involves a small, gemlike performance by director Simon Curtis’s wife Elizabeth McGovern as a judge) before returning to Europe for the final showdown, by which point Schoenberg has been dismissed from his tony law firm and is risking his entire career on winning this case.
The results are easy to know in advance with a simple google search, as this is not a film made very long after its events took place, which means that it needs something more thematically contemplative to justify its being admired as more than just a network TV movie recreation of a recent news event. The theme of history, both as nostalgia as well as the critical perspective that time gives to notable, often horrifying events, is not something that the script takes on in any deep or invigorating manner, and a great deal of resonance is dampened by the awkward casting of key roles: Mirren is too young to play Altmann (she was in her late eighties when the story begins, Mirren is only 70), Reynolds is too glamorous for his and neither of them are convincing at either their Jewish heritage or the weight of cultural memory that finds them at the place where they are looking to reclaim the past. What the Austria of this film claims is the reconciling the evils of the past is actually an attempt to cover up historical shame, but Curtis can’t handle so weighty a subject and instead uses a series of unnecessary flashbacks to give the film prestige, recreating the world of Altmann’s youth that, while very well performed by actors such as Tatiana Maslany (as young Altmann) and Max Irons (as her husband, Fritz), never seem that much different from any other film made about that particular moment in history.
A film focused solely on the events of the present would have been strong enough had it trusted its audience to patiently sort out the argument over the value of a nation’s soul, but instead we get the crib’s notes, treating Altmann’s opponents with far too much care before being rushed through to the, thankfully, very satisfying finale.
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Actress (Helen Mirren)