Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is a famous painting by Gustav Klimt, the last and most representative of his “golden phase”, so-called because the oil painting is literally covered in painstakingly applied gold leaf. Adele’s husband commissioned it; the Bloch-Bauers were both friends and patrons of the artist Klimt and this portrait hung proudly in their home until Nazis stole it during the second world war, as the luckier of Adele’s family fled, and the unlucky died in death camps.
Today we know her simply as “Woman in Gold” because Nazis felt Klimt was distasteful (not quite Aryan enough, I suppose) so Austria hung it on the walls of a museum, pretending it was rightfully theirs, and white-washing the fact that its subject was a Jew.
The movie tells the “true” story of Maria Altmann, Adele’s beloved niece, as she tries to win this and several other pieces of family artwork back from the Austrian government. Austria, in a bid for good PR, opened its courts to “art repatriation” and gave families the chance to claim the things unlawfully taken from them during the war. Of course, Austria never intended to let go of things they now consider to be national treasures (and this Klimt alone is said to be worth $100 million). So while they smile and nod at Maria, her request is rejected, and likely never actually considered.
So Maria lawyers up, choosing noob Ryan Reynolds because he has Austrian roots instead of experience or knowledge. And this connection does push him to do good work, to pursue this for years through any venue he can. But the actor Ryan Reynolds isn’t quite up to the task. He pales beside Helen Mirren, but he also struggles to bring any gravitas or seriousness to a role that demands it. So it’s hard to take this as a drama about justice and redemption when it is cast like a romcom.
But I did feel emotionally compelled by the material. Maria’s life is told in flashbacks to her Viennese life just before the Nazis invaded and the Austrians welcomed them with open arms, and flowers. Now she’s seeking to right wrongs committed half a century ago, wrongs that still smart and always will, and that can’t really ever be reconciled. A painting can be physically returned, but not so of her parents’ lives. Maria goes to Austria only reluctantly – too many painful memories – and finds that the people there have not entirely let the past go: she finds a kind-hearted journalist willing to help, but is also accosted by a total stranger who basically gives her a “you people” speech and tells her to let the Holocaust go.
The movie gives her (and us) a fabulous Hollywood ending. The case garners enough attention that they shame the committee into (eventually) doing the right thing. Maria refuses to sell the painting, instead opting to find it a home in America, where she too has fled, and built a new life. But in real life, when Maria reclaimed the painting, she turned around and sold it for 135 million dollars, and while it is absolutely her right to do so, I guess the script writer thought it took a little away from the triumph to make this known. So while I enjoyed this movie, I think it let us down. It didn’t respect the audience or the character enough to let her stand as is – not as caricature of virtuosity and justice, but a real, live human being who went through hell and is still, all these years later, trying to put the pieces back together however she can.