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‘Woman in Gold’ grants humanity and dignity to Jews whose family art treasures were looted by Nazis

Woman in Gold film still. Photograph: PR
Woman in Gold film still. Photograph: PR

by Patrick B. McGuigan

Moments of clarity come and go. As children, our imaginations conjure visions and hopes — that in every instance we will behave nobly, or at least reasonably so.

In “Woman in Gold,” now in wide release, the film-goer sees deft portrayals of thoroughly modern women and men living in these times. A wide cast of characters — Austrian bureaucrats, American diplomats, hard-bitten attorneys – manage to convince themselves that there are compelling reasons not to return a stolen painting to its rightful owner.

Justifications and legalistic rationales convince people who seem decent that keeping art looted by Nazis in an Austrian gallery is the right thing to do. From time to time the viewer might briefly think: “Well, they have a point, there.”

This fleeting sentiment is a tribute to Alexei Kaye Campbell, who wrote the screenplay, adapting the life stories of E. Randol Schoeberg and Maria Altmann. It is also speaks to the brilliance of director Simon Curtis, who renders believably a varied cast.

In the end, pragmatic rationales for the dreadful post-World War II status quo are, happily, defeated — both in the real world, and in this tremendous and true movie.

Randol (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of acclaimed composer Arnold Schoenberg, is a bright young attorney at the cusp of success in a large California firm. He takes an interest in the case of the aging  Maria (Helen Mirren), who in her younger days was forced to flee Vienna, Austria.

Youthful Maria (beautifully portrayed by Tatiana Maslany) and her husband, (Max Irons) barely avoided imprisonment for the “sin” of being Jewish after the Anschluss, the “peaceful” Nazi takeover of a previously democratic and admirable nation. The couple left behind Maria’s beloved family, successful entrepreneurs whose wealth was confiscated by the fascists.

Late in her life, after the death of her sister, Maria learns that a family heirloom, a lovely painting of her Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, is rightfully hers, and not the property of the Austrian State Gallery in Vienna. The painting “Woman in Gold” by Gustave Klimt became over several decades a revered symbol of a Golden Age for Austria — albeit one when Jews were part of the lifeblood of a nation that later permitted their slaughter.

Seeking to recover the masterpiece, Maria and Randol are befriended in Austria by journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), who guides them through Austria arcania, a stacked deck against reparations for victims of the Nazi Holocaust.
Complicated legal questions unfold, with respect for the contending parties.
Nicely done are a series of flashbacks to Maria’s youth, and to Aunt Adele (Antje Traue) in her glorious prime.

Before and after trips to her once-beloved home town, Maria doubts the efficacy of Randol’s increasingly passionate (and for a long time, uncompensated) legal efforts. She is dragged kicking and screaming along the path to justice.

Mirren is superb in the lead, Reynolds is her equal as the cynic-turned-crusader. For a time, one fears that Randol’s new-found idealism may end his marriage to Pam (Katie Holmes, in a solid performance).

Jonathan Pryce is effective in a brief cameo as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, presiding when Maria’s case is heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. During oral arguments, the camera lingers long enough on the faces of the justices that it is fun to play “who’s who” for a moment, despite the gravity of what is portrayed on the screen.

Near the story’s end, filmmakers permit themselves an imaginative and artistic sequence, in which Maria returns to her former home, to walk among her long-lost relatives, and stand in awe before Klimt’s masterpiece.

Briefly touched upon is the irony that Austria could have kept “Woman in Gold” in Vienna, government officials had agreed to recognize Maria’s ownership.

The story carries power and poignancy in all places, including here. The University of Oklahoma’s Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art holds at least one painting with a similar progeny. Good people all, university officials – extending all the way to President David Boren – have convinced themselves they should hang on to “Shepherdess Bringing in the Sheep,” a painting by Camille Pissarro which Nazis stole from the family of Leone Meyer, who is now seeking to recover it.

This great film, about a similar but not identical case, will help Oklahomans understand why Boren and his staff are wrong.

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