Woman in Gold: Simon Curtis paints us a picture
by Bénédicte Prot
- BERLIN 2015: Simon Curtis re-tells the true story of the restitution of the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by Klimt, starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Daniel Brühl
The story was exceptional, the production money was there, but eventually, Woman in Gold [+see also:
film profile], by the London-born director Simon Curtis, screened at Berlin in the Special Gala section, is as imaginative as its sub-title, “Justice is Priceless”! The tale it tells is one of the most incredible and wonderful stories of recovered artwork that had been seized by the Nazis from the Jews, which created quite the buzz, due to the degree of fame of the masterpiece in question: “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” by the great Gustav Klimt (the most expensive portrait to date, which the cosmetics giant Ronal Lauder paid an estimated $135 million to obtain). To recount the events, Curtis and his British and American producers gathered a star-studded team to bring the story to life: for the role of Maria Altman, the Austrian immigrant in California who is in fact Adele’s niece, we have Dame Helen Mirren, next to Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg, the young American lawyer who is distantly related to her and helps her; he is also the grandson of a famous Viennese composer, and serial music herald. Katie Holmes is there, as is Elizabeth McGovern... Not to forget Daniel Brühl, who is unavoidable whenever an international production ventures into German-speaking territory and always delivers in the role of the good-hearted Germanic character - here, he plays an Austrian Nazi’s son who wants to atone for the sins of his father by helping exiled Jews to recover the treasures that were taken from them and that the Austrian government has done a bad job at giving back.
Despite the clearly high budget the film was made with, the final result is disappointingly conventional, starting with the classic, unlikely dynamic duo starring in the film: Randol is not entirely sure he wants to help Maria, who wants to fight this exhausting legal and diplomatic struggle until the bitter end, in order to recover the memento of her family. At the end, they both team up and reach a mutual understanding despite the “villains” who insist on setting up obstacles in their path, giving the impression that Austria has not progressed from the past.
The result is not very believable. Also, we understand that if Maria wants to recover her painting, it is not for the money, nor even to commemorate all of the Jewish victims, but to reconnect with the childhood memories that were stolen from her and, above all, as the film reiterates, to “recover what is rightfully hers” - a motive that, when put that way, can't really stir any deep emotion within the audience. As for Randol, his reasons to aid Maria in her diplomatic quest are also clumsily expressed, like in the scene where he stands before a commemorative statue for the victims of the Holocaust, suddenly becomes aware of all of the suffering his ancestors lived through and goes to cry in the men's room. This classic American tendency to want to make one's identity much more meaningful through the old shtetl mindset is strengthened when he attends a chamber-music concert where they are playing his grandfather’s music, after which his heart swells so much with new-found Austrian pride that he goes on to deliver his grand speech.
(Translated from French)