Simply put, Woman in Gold is the story of Maria Altmann who—her family’s paintings having been stolen by the Nazis—seeks to reclaim a particularly famous one from the Austrian national art museum that “owns” it.
Woman in Gold has as its immediate backdrop the painting whose popular appellation gives the movie its title. It is a stunning masterpiece by quintessential Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). His portraits, mostly of women, employed stylized forms with elaborate patterning of clothing and backgrounds. The so-called “Woman in Gold” is of this type, a famous example of Klimt’s “golden phase” which often utilized actual gold leaf to show opulence.
The narrative of Woman in Gold is also interwoven with the historical events and great tragic drama of the Second World War, including the unspeakable evils of the Holocaust. Altmann’s family was exterminated by the Nazis, and it falls to her to wage the legal battle to reclaim their painting and with it some sense of justice.
Altmann (wonderfully played by acting great Helen Mirren) thus joins forces with lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). Himself grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, the Austrian composer (and late Altmann friend), young Schoenberg tells Altmann their quest is unlikely to succeed but that it will surely fulfill her desire to have her family’s history told.
And so the unlikely pair of Davids set out against the Goliath of the Austrian government. But not only had the masterpiece been stolen; its popular title “Woman in Gold” has obscured the Jewish identity of its portrait subject, the painting actually being titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (a depiction of Altmann’s aunt). Now having become a national art treasure (sometimes called “Austria’s ‘Mona Lisa’”), the painting will not be given up without a fight—one that is taken, on something of a technicality, to the United States Supreme Court and then back to Austria for binding arbitration.
And all of this is far more meaningful than I am making it sound, as director Simon Curtis artfully uses alternating flashbacks to reveal the powerful back story, and blends sympathy with suspense to take the viewer on an emotional trip to the finale. You won’t want to miss it.
Rating: Three and a half wooden nickels (out of four)