Seeking restitution for Nazi art theft


Woman In Gold (M). Director: Simon Curtis. Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Homes, Tatiana Maslany. 109 minutes

Last year, George Clooney’s The Monuments Men examined a fascinating subplot of the Second World War — the efforts of a team of art scholars to retrieve and preserve works of art stolen or imperilled by the Nazis. Though well-intentioned, the film missed the mark badly, working neither as an adventure romp nor as a serious consideration of the intrinsic cultural value of art. Woman In Gold deals with related subject matter, and sadly its shortcomings are comparable.

It is based on the true story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish Austrian national who fled her home country as a young woman after its 1938 annexation by Germany. Maria, played by Mirren in the present-day (the film opens in 1998 Los Angeles) and by Maslany in flashbacks to late-1930s Vienna, has lived and worked in America ever since, and has resisted the urge to so much as visit the country and city that holds many wonderful and painful memories for her. 

Now she may have reason to return. Maria's aunt was the subject of one of Austria's most famous artworks, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by the painter Gustav Klimt, during his famed 'golden phase'. (In contrast to The Monuments Men, Woman In Gold at least attends to the endeavour of the creative process — which surely is part of art's intrinsic value — with an opening sequence portraying the artist deftly manipulating fragile gold leaf onto his stunning work-in-progress.)

The painting, along with several others by Klimt, was stolen from Maria's family by the Nazis, and now hangs in a gallery in Vienna. But questions have emerged regarding the gallery's and Austria's continued possession of these and other works of art stolen by the Nazis from private collections. So Maria enlists the help of talented but inexperienced lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds) — whose own grandfather was a famous Austrian composer — to seek restitution.

This is a fascinating story, with its fingers in several meaty thematic pies. It is concerned with the means and consequences of individuals and nations trying to fully come to terms with difficult histories. And it skirts fraught questions regarding what constitutes 'ownership' of cultural artefacts with a high level of national significance, and the ethics of the ways in which individual rights might be circumvented in the name of this perceived greater national good.

But ultimately it treats this interesting material with too light a touch — with a formulaic blandness, twee humour and little inventiveness. The film is carried by strong performances from Mirren, Maslany and Reynolds, and its flashbacks to young Maria’s flight from Austria are suitably suspenseful. But the scripting and overall execution are pedestrian to the point of dullness, with the result that in the end, Woman In Gold, like The Monuments Men, sells its fascinating story short.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Gustav Klimt, Maria Altmann, Woman in Gold



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Existing comments

I'm quite torn after reading this review. "Woman in Gold" is actually screening at our local cinema but I'm loath to spend money to see a film of "formulaic blandness, twee humour and little inventiveness". Maybe "Mad Max Fury Road" will do.

Pam | 27 May 2015  

According to a survey by Ronald Lauder, chairman of the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, virtually "every art museum" in the Western world had Nazi loot. A review of 225 museum catalogues by his staff found 1,700 stolen pieces. He urged governments and galleries to return the art or auction it to help Jews.

Father John George | 28 May 2015  

Four of us that I know of have seen and enjoyed Woman in Gold. I sometimes think that movie critics set their sights too high and find grounds for criticism while the ordinary view sees no problem at all. Perhaps you will counter that we set our sights too low.

Name | 28 May 2015  

Fair call, 'Name'. For what it's worth, I actually enjoyed the film too - however I thought that it had the potential to be powerful, rather than 'merely' enjoyable. Pam - Despite my criticisms, it is worth a look: for Mirren's performance, for the well executed flashback sequences (featuring Tatiana Maslany, the talented star of the very good British TV series 'Orphan Black'), and the beautiful Vienna locations.

Tim Kroenert | 28 May 2015  

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