Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – known for years as, simply, The Woman in Gold – was one of the painter’s most famous works, and became an unofficial emblem of Austria after it was housed in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace since the 1940s.
The portrait was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Adele’s husband and a wealthy sugar magnet, in the early 1900s. Adele passed away in 1925, but the painting hung in their home until it and other valuables were ransacked by the Nazi regime in 1938, after Ferdinand had fled the country.
While Adele had left the painting to the Belvedere in her will, Ferdinand (it’s true owner) had bequeathed it, and the rest of his estate, to his surviving heirs; they included niece Marie Altmann, who also fled Germany during the Nazi invasion and ended up in California.
In 2000, Marie took the country of Austria to court in an effort to set things right.
The story behind the painting is a fascinating one, and Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis, is an entirely sufficient – if unspectacular – retelling that intercuts Marie Altmann’s early life and emigration from Nazi-ruled Austria with her court battles more than fifty years later.
Helen Mirren stars as the latter-day Marie, who enlists Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the attorney son of a friend, to help her with her case. The pair travel to Austria to try to re-obtain the painting via the country’s restitution process, but soon discover it won’t be so easy.
Flashback scenes throughout the film feature Tatiana Maslany as the young Marie and Max Irons as her husband Fritz. Their story is the most compelling in the film, although a climactic chase scene where the duo barely escapes Nazi bullets feels like Hollywood invention.
While Marie’s story – and Mirren’s performance – dominates the film, the film also offers some good character work in support. Reynolds’ Schoenberg – initially is interested in the case because of the value of the painting, but later for more personal reasons – has the meatiest arc.
Daniel Brühl, as a reporter who assists Altmann and Schoenberg in Austria, has a memorable scene where he reveals his motivations for helping them.
An eclectic supporting cast features a number of familiar faces, including Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern – wife of the director – as one of the US judges.
At its worst, Woman in Gold turns unnecessarily schmaltzy – there’s no need for heartstring pulling in this real-life drama. The film also lacks dramatic momentum in its climactic scenes, when an arbitration process occurs behind closed doors; we only hear a verdict, and not the discussion behind it.
At its best, however, Woman in Gold is a perfectly decent version of this compelling story bolstered by some terrific performances. Anyone unfamiliar with the material is highly recommended to check it out.
For more on the story of the Portrait of Adele and Marie Altmann’s efforts to get it back, see the documentaries Adele’s Wish, Stealing Klimt, and the excellent Rape of Europa, which looks at the incredible theft of art by Nazi Germany during WWII.