The Neue Galerie on Madison Avenue will open its exhibit, Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold, one day after the film, starring Helen Mirren, opens in limited release. (In New York, the movie will be shown at the Paris Cinema, in Washington at the Landmark E Street Cinema.) The exhibit will run through September 7, giving theater goers enough time to see the painting that inspired this exceptional film.
Like George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, Woman in Gold centers on reclaiming artwork stolen by the Nazis that eventually ended up in private hands or museums. Here, however, the story is based on a true story and much more personal. Maria Altmann was very close to her aunt, Adele, who was childless and related to her niece as a second mother. Adele, who died in 1925, was immortalized by Klimt in his painting, originally called “Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” When the Nazis invaded Austria, they plundered the homes of Jewish citizens, taking anything of value including jewelry, musical instruments, silver, china, and art work. The painting of Adele was pulled off the walls in the Altmann’s Vienna home. After the war, the painting remained in Austria.
The film opens in 1998. Maria is living in Los Angeles. After the death of her sister, she begins to go through paperwork and becomes consumed with reclaiming her aunt’s painting. She convinces a young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose grandfather, Jewish composer, Arnold Schoenberg, was a family friend, to help her. Randy’s efforts to start his own firm failed and just beginning work with a new firm, he’s reluctant to take on Maria’s battle. Doing his research online, he learns that the painting is now worth upwards of $100 million. With money as a motivation, Randy takes on the case, even convincing his firm’s senior partner (Charles Dance, as menacing as he is in Game of Thrones), to allow him to travel to Vienna with Maria.
Maria is at first reluctant to return to Austria, her memories still too painful. Flashbacks show the Nazis marching into Vienna, hailed by the citizens who toss flowers at the soldiers and wave swastika flags. The Jewish citizens, however, are humiliated and beaten. A newly married Maria (Tatiana Maslany) flees Vienna with her husband (Max Irons), leaving behind her parents.
The thought of being reunited with her aunt’s painting, however, helps Maria conquer her fears. She agrees to accompany Randy back to Vienna. Although Austria passed a law ostensibly affording more transparency with regard to the restitution of artwork, government officials routinely deny claims. Maria’s case is particularly difficult since Adele’s portrait has been dubbed “The Mona Lisa of Austria.” (Antje Traue who portrays Adele, not only looks like the woman in the painting, but carries herself with the elegance and poise befitting a wealthy woman who was a patron of many famous painters.) Even with the help of a local journalist (Daniel Brühl), Maria’s claim is denied. Before leaving Vienna, Maria and Randy visit the Holocaust memorial. Randy is overwhelmed with emotion thinking about how his own family was forced to flee from the Nazis. When his firm refuses to allow him to continue to represent Maria, he quits, even though his wife (Katie Holmes) is pregnant with their second child. Along with Maria, Randy is now on a mission.
The film manages to simplify the complicated legal maneuverings while keeping up the suspense. There’s never any doubt how the story will end, yet getting there proves satisfying indeed. In notes after the film, we learn that Ronald Lauder purchased the painting for $135 million, the centerpiece of his collection in the Neue Gallerie.
Mirren once again is magnificent. That she’s also appearing on Broadway as Queen Elizabeth in The Audience (see Alix Cohen’s review) speaks to her versatility and longevity. With her play routinely selling out, fans will be able to enjoy her on screen.
Despite his long list of film credits, Reynold’s resume could use a boost. Audiences whose regular diet excludes super hero films (Reynolds was the Green Lantern, appeared in an X-Men film, and has another superhero film in the works), may discover this actor and seek out his future roles. As Randy, Reynolds is likable but it’s when he shows emotion – his meltdown in the Holocaust museum and in a confrontation with Mirren – that he demonstrates he’s capable of taking on more serious roles.
While Woman in Gold is an uplifting story, it’s estimated that 20 percent of European art was looted by the Nazis and 100,000 pieces remain missing. Maria’s story had a positive ending, but there are probably many more stories to be told.
Women in Gold opens in select markets April 1, 2015, in wide release, April 3, 2015.