17-23 July 2015 #767

The Woman in Gold

One of those odd films that could so easily have tended towards formulaic banality had it not been for the focused talents of its two main characters
Sophia Pande

Occasionally Hollywood will churn out an imperfect film that is still utterly captivating. The Woman in Gold is one of those odd little films that could so easily have tended towards formulaic banality had it not been for the focused talents of its two main characters.

Based on the real life story of Maria Altmann, played by the wonderful Helen Mirren, the film deals with the epic case of Altmann’s fight against the Austrian government to retrieve enormously valuable paintings that had belonged to her family, a wealthy, immensely sophisticated Jewish industrialists living in Vienna, who lost everything they owned due to the advent of Nazi influence in Austria.Ostracised and impoverished, Altmann (née Bloch-Bauer, Adele was her aunt by marriage) leaves Austria behind with her husband for the United Stated determined to begin anew.

It is only years later, with the help of Randol/Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) a lawyer son of another Austrian-Jewish friend, that she begins a decade long struggle to regain ownership of her family’s lost property.

The case of the ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer’ (or ‘The Woman in Gold’ as it came to be known) painting was a historic one for many reasons. After the war, the Klimt paintings commissioned by the Bloch-Bauer family were displayed at the famous Belvedere House in Vienna, quickly becoming synonymous with Austrian culture. As a result, in addition to complex legalities, the Austrian government was also extremely reluctant to concede the moral and ethical issues linked to the public absorption of paintings seized during the holocaust, aware that returning the Klimt paintings to Altmann could set a precedent for hundreds of such claims in the future.

While the legalities involved are fascinating, the film’s strength is in the wonderful and heartbreaking recreation of the Bloch-Bauer family’s lives in pre-war Vienna, their privilege, their bewilderment at being victimised after having been integral in influential society solely due to them belonging to the jewish faith.

Both Mirren and Reynolds shine in their roles as they battle both the legal system, and sometimes each other, clinging to the case that is so closely linked to the past of both families (Schoenberg’s grandfather was the famous Austrian composer and painter).

For those who followed the case in real time, you will know that Adele Bloch-Bauer’s portrait now resides in New York in the Neue Galerie, bought by the Lauder family for an astonishing $135 million and put on permanent display at the request of Maria Altmann – a shimmering pleasure for all to see, and an incredibly symbolic victory for the Jewish people who lost so much during the war. While this film sometimes descends into self-indulgent sentimentality, the gravity of the situation and the history it seeks to portray makes it essential viewing.

Watch trailer

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