Wednesday 3 June 2015

The Current Cinema - Woman in Gold reviewed by Max Berghouse

Woman in Gold (Simon Curtis, BBC Films, UK 2015) has received generally indifferent press. The story, based on fact, concerns the pursuit by the very elderly Austrian American widow, Maria Altmann  (Helen Mirren), assisted by a youthful American attorney (Ryan Reynolds), also of Viennese background and indeed the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. The "woman in gold" is her deceased aunt, as painted by the early 20th century painter Gustav Klimt. Even as originally painted it was recognised as one of the most important paintings of the period and, giving a spoiler alert, after Maria recovers the painting, it is on sold for $135,000,000.

I feel the criticisms of the pace of the film are unwarranted as I found it generally quite enveloping. Some of the other criticisms are essentially extra-filmic. It is certainly true that there can be a dichotomy between the private ownership of culturally significant items and the cultural desire of a polity to have public ownership of such items. This is just touched upon in the film, but very lightly and in the context that the Austrian people and government were dishonest and manipulative in holding on to the painting (and others) which had been originally stolen by the Nazis at the time of the Anschluss. While clearly delineating "Austria" as the antagonist, there is an equally light touch in displaying the robust anti-Semitism, not only in 1938 but also in 1998, when the film is set.

Plunder of private property is clearly a serious matter and the Holocaust more serious still, but it is also clear that the director' s intention is essentially entertainment. In this he adopts the customary "hero's journey" and presumably at least modifies facts to suit the dramatic narrative. More of that later.

Let me get out of the way that which must be considered incontrovertible. The acting of both male and female lead is exemplary. That comes as no surprise in relation to Helen Mirren who unfortunately for me, whenever she is on screen, makes me think that Queen Elizabeth has become a film actress! She plays a role that is significantly, perhaps more, of an idealised "Jewish mother". She is attractive and educated, indeed aristocratic in bearing, charmingly aggressive and generally determined. Ryan Reynolds, unexpectedly for me at least, commits himself to a very low-key, immersive role as a relatively junior lawyer, bespectacled so as to partly disguise his good looks and generally relatively poorly dressed, so as to convey a real person in his position. All the other actors,mostly English (and some of Jewish background) as well as German, are exactly what one would expect of high class British historic fare: fully professional.

Settings are up to usual BBC high standards, especially in relation to the historical scenes, set in Vienna of 1938. There are a few faults which an aficionado like myself could point to, but this would be trifling in the extreme. Scenes in Los Angeles in "current" time have the appearance of being set up by someone not customarily in that overheated, both physically and metaphorically, environment. Such attention to detail can help to cover a great many other faults although as I said, I found few.

I very much doubt that the story is exceptionally close to history but that is the reason for the heading of this article. Plot development is built entirely around the "hero's journey": the unsettling discovery (papers of her late sister indicating to Maria a possibility of change in repatriation laws of property by Austria), the meeting with the callow but nonetheless loyal lieutenant, Randy Schoenberg whom the heroine recognises has qualities not seen by others in whom she has faith almost from the beginning, a series of negative developments as to recovery of the painting, on the one hand demoralising the heroine but re-engaging and recommitting Randy until a final denouement – an arbitration in which the three arbitrators decide that the property should be remitted to America to a private gallery owned by one of Estee Lauder's sons. This is the clear development trajectory even though it is not geared to intense drama. The near crisis and possibility of failure is handled in a very low-key fashion.

There are two aspects about which I ought to write and I hope sensitively which relate to the Jewish identity of each main characters. I cannot speak with any particular authority on this.  Not until after the film did I realise that the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was as a matter of fact the grandfather of Randy Schoenberg, was Jewish. I pride myself on having some considerable knowledge of classical music but on the other hand there are many people including myself who would dispute that Schoenberg wrote music anyway! On the one hand Maria shows extraordinary resistance to going back to Vienna, not so much for fear of loss of her court case, but from fear masquerading as disdain for what she and her family suffered pre-war. That portrayal strikes me as very similar to most Holocaust survivors, those I met being the parents of people I went to school with. They simply, as is mentioned in the film, like Lot' s wife, did not look back and just got on with their lives. On reflection I found this very subtle and accurate.

Coming to terms with his Jewish identity, I found Randy much less convincing. Immediately after visiting the Vienna Holocaust Museum, he becomes violently sick in a nearby toilet. Consistent with the theory of the hero's journey, this is a re-energising point for his determination to carry forward. Unfortunately I found the performance at this part extremely mannered and "external". Apart from this artificiality, so it seems to me, the rest of Ryan Reynolds’ performance is excellent.

I did not experience any flat points in the development nor denouement. Overall I found this a very efficiently told and engaging film. It is not a great movie and I cannot help but feel that it does not escape fully from a TV film background. But I would recommend seeing it. 

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