A film that hides its actual badness under a tarpaulin of mediocrity so thick and heavy it’s difficult to even lift a corner to peek beneath, for a while I wasn’t quite sure why I hated “Woman in Gold” so very, very much. It is, on the surface, a harmless, well-intentioned, and acceptable “Philomena“-style “inspirational true story,” with Nazis instead of nuns, and a painting instead of a baby. And if even the least discerning audience can tell it’s not as good as “Philomena,” sure it will do till the next “Philomena” comes along, right? But look closer, and there’s something insidious about this sort of reconstituted pablum, pre-masticated for maximum digestibility. It’s not harmless, not well-intentioned, it’s not fit to lick “Philomena”‘s boots, and no, it won’t do. Is it fair to make “Woman in Gold” representative of the failings of the whole historical-true-story-designed-to-remind-an-older-skewing-middle-class-white-audience-that-people-have-triumphed-over-adversity genre? Perhaps not, but as one of its most egregious and fallacious examples, it’s as good a line to draw in the sand as any.
This is a retelling by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn“) of the story of Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren doing “flinty” again), daughter of an extremely wealthy Jewish family who fled Nazi Austria as a newlywed, made her home in America, and late in life mounted a case against the Austrian government for the return of five paintings looted by the Nazis from her parents’ home. One of the paintings, which had special personal meaning for her, we’re told, was of her aunt Adele. It also just so happened, however, to be painted by Gustav Klimt, valued at north of $100 million, and to have become an Austrian national treasure, having hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna since its illegal seizure. But this last bit is given short shrift because everyone knows Austria resigned its right to any sense of cultural identity in perpetuity the second the Anschluss happened, plus, the Austria of this film is, Daniel Bruhl‘s friendly reporter aside, full of oily, condescending bureaucrats with cold eyes, so there’s no way they should get to have nice stuff.
A staggeringly bland Ryan Reynolds plays Altmann’s lawyer, Randy, son of another emigre family known to her from the Old Country, and an even more white bread Katie Holmes plays his wife. She has maybe one line in the entire film that is not composed solely of words of support for her husband, who finds his Jewish pride and sorrow awoken by a quick glance at the Holocaust memorial in Vienna and thereafter makes this case his crusade.
The idea of restitution of property is a noble but complex one when applied to history, much more so when we’re talking about the already thorny issue of art ownership. But these are complexities the film limps past, deflecting attention every time one threatens to raise its ugly but interesting head by throwing a bucket of syrup at us or indulging in a flashback to overfamiliar scenes of Nazi evil, as witnessed by the younger Maria (played by “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, best of all the actors). In this way, the film gets to coast along, complacent in the belief that it’s somehow bulletproof from critical investigation of its moral stance, because Holocaust. So even when Adele’s own will reveals she wished the painting to remain in Austria, it’s somehow twisted away from being a major hurdle en route to the moral high ground, and turned into a victory for Randy and his lawyering when it’s discovered that it was merely her wish, not her legally binding will, and anyway the painting wasn’t hers to give as it belonged to her husband. It seems everyone had a claim on this painting except the supposedly beloved woman in it.
Altmann sold the painting in New York it for $135m. But throughout the film it’s protested that it’s not about the money, it’s about justice and reuniting a woman with what’s rightfully her private property, so cruelly robbed from her by the murderers of her family. So it must also be about the principle of the thing, about using a high-profile case to open the floodgates for others, who perhaps do not have a near-priceless art collection in the balance to make a big court case worthwhile? Except it’s explicitly not. When finally in the Supreme Court (Jonathan Pryce is a daffy judge, following Elizabeth McGovern‘s brief moment as a no-nonsense lower court justice), Randy addresses the issue of precedent by wittily comparing it to the proverbial can of worms, and then saying they should just take this one worm out and close the can real quick after. Which Judge Jonathan Pryce finds mighty amusing, and everyone laughs and the music swells and… hang on, what? The score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer is very culpable throughout, insisting, through use of bludgeoning repeated motifs, that moments that are in fact problematic are actually super triumphant or heartbreakingly sad, and we should all have a good wallow, rather than a good think.
One of the final, shamelessly manipulative flashback scenes shows Maria about to flee, bidding farewell to her parents, who will indeed be caught and will die before the war ends. Her tearful father asks one last thing of her as they all sob in a circle: “Remember us.” But remembrance should be a jagged, painful thing, not the comfortable, empty repetition of platitudes, like mouthing a prayer to a God you don’t believe in. And that’s the danger of this type of cynical, mass-market historical tourism: under guise of remembrance it can blithely repackage the Holocaust, or any other historical outrage, for our tearjerking entertainment needs, until all these indistinguishable products become so much white noise. In this, “Woman in Gold” is truly inexcusable — it’s an act of forgetting. [D]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.