Art and Identity, Lost and Found in 'Woman in Gold'

Much investigation has gone into the issue of Nazi art theft during World War II, with grand efforts made to verify claims and restore pieces to their rightful owners or their surviving family members.

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Much investigation has gone into the issue of Nazi art theft during World War II, with grand efforts made to verify claims and restore pieces to their rightful owners or their surviving family members. But a more intriguing examination might focus on the loss of identity and the resulting depreciation of culture as time passes. How can we quantify what has been taken, when it is as intangible and ephemeral as a shared sense of the self, and how, pray tell, can we as a society ever hope to restore this loss. And more importantly, is this within the purview of social and/or legal institutions?  

Such concerns were of far more interest to me while watching Woman in Gold, the latest (and only the second feature film) from television veteran Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn). It delves into the thorny subject of art reclamation as it relates to Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a Jewish refugee from Austria who embarks on a remarkable battle against her former homeland’s government and a national museum to recover a series of artworks — a set of portraits of her beloved aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer (recognized as Austria’s “Mona Lisa”) and other pieces from Gustav Klimt (Moritz Bleibtreu) — commissioned by her uncle. Maria stumbles onto this quest much later in life, after the death of her sister, when she discovers letters offering teasing hints regarding her family’s rights of ownership of the renowned works, in particular “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I,” which Maria remembered hanging in her family’s home.

But it was not merely the memory of the works and the immediacy of them that Curtis weaves into play for Maria and the audience. No, there is a deeper immersion in a world where the arts, in all forms, served as life’s blood or the very air that one would breathe. Besides commissioning and collecting fine art, Maria’s father was a classically trained cellist, and the younger Maria (played by Tatiana Maslany, star of Orphan Black) herself ended up marrying Frederick Altmann (Max Irons), an Austrian opera singer of note. Her home, based on her recollections, was a center of the burgeoning arts scene, with composer Arnold Schoenberg counted among the inner circle of family friends.

And it is the Schoenberg link that ties the old- and new-world storylines together. When the older Maria reaches out to her dear friend (Frances Fisher), a fellow Austrian immigrant and the daughter of the legendary composer, assistance arrives in the form of Randol “Randy” Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the grandson of the composer and a California-based lawyer working hard to make a name for himself. The young Schoenberg knows of his grandfather and his family’s Austrian roots but is too worried about the new-world affiliations of his family name — his father is a state judge — to want to spend time with his mother’s old friend.

It is only once he reads the letters and starts digging into the claim that he realizes the gravity of the situation — especially the potential value of the pieces (purported to be worth more than $100 million) — and how spearheading the case could help him achieve the distinction he so desires. There is much to admire about how Reynolds, a handsome and engaging performer, wears this character like a familiar and quite comfortable outfit. This is his chance to earn notice for more than his looks and quick wit, and he appreciatively burrows into Schoenberg.

What is fascinating though is how Randol Schoenberg — as a character — slowly evolves as well, into a man seeking to reconnect with his own history and the legacy of his family in their homeland, a strange and distant place for him. It is unclear whether Schoenberg had ever been to Austria before that first trip with Maria to initiate the legal proceedings, but the rooting around in her memories stirs a tickle of sorts that Schoenberg soon must scratch. The younger Schoenberg is no artist, but what he discovers in himself is passion, the inspiration that when bonded with discipline and practice, led to the creation of masterworks by his grandfather and the legal legacy of his own (unseen) father. 

Simon Curtis has Mirren, always an appealing presence, and the mercurial jolt that Maslany provides as well, but the real secret here is the combination of performer and character in Reynolds and Schoenberg, for Woman in Gold succeeds as the film shifts, allowing for Schoenberg’s emerging sense of identity to rise to the fore in the form of a subtly complex realization by Reynolds. This is where art and life move beyond imitation into something that resembles real appreciation. (Opens Friday) Grade: B

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