Film Review: Woman in Gold

by Vincent Chan

Rated M. Starring Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes. Directed by Simon Curtis.

Is it possible for a movie about a portrait of a woman to win over an audience?

Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altman (Mirren) and her fight to reclaim the stolen picture of her aunt from the Austrian government during the Nazi regime. Along the way she is helped out by cynical young lawyer Randy (Reynolds), who goes to learn that sometimes in life, there are more important things than money. The film is based on true events and in a case where reality can be weirder than fiction – Maria really did take on the Austrian government – and won.

Although the title is from the portrait of her aunt, Maria is really the star of the show. She’s the heroine of the film and comes in the form of a Jewish grandmother. However, this is no typical grandmother that bakes apple pies and knits wooly jumpers for birthdays. Maria has a feistiness that you wouldn’t want to mess with. She’s got character and spunk, and yet a real grit and performance that the film portrays well. Given the acting chops that Mirren has in her resume, Mirren is a great fit for Maria – try not to be intimidated by her firm, resolute stare.

As much as Woman in Gold tells the story of the present it also gives life to the past. In this case, the narrative enables us to understand more and more about Maria’s character. As the atrocities of the holocaust are played out in flashbacks, impossible choices are shown. How does one decide whether to flee or stay with their family in a nation that is becoming hostile? How does one respond when your neighbours start becoming those who start spying on you? History is not often kind. There is a foreboding sense of reality as flashbacks of Maria’s past are interspersed throughout the story. With its sepia tones and strong acting from a young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) in these portions, the film does well to show that to understand the present, history cannot be denied.

“People see the finest piece…but I see my aunt”

Like history, art is also significant in the film. From the classical backing of cello music to museum portraits in a gallery, the film ultimately centres on one painting. Painted in 1907, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” by the famous Gustav Klimt is the famous “Woman in Gold” the film is titled after. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I wouldn’t really know my picasso from my pizzas, so in one sense the beauty of the art itself would have been easily lost on me. Yet I loved how the film shows that the picture weaves a much more complex and intricate story than just a pretty painting. Why? Because for Maria this painting symbolises so much – it’s family, it’s her past, it’s justice. For the nation of Austria it’s the “Woman in Gold”, but for Maria, it is her Aunt Adele.

And yet, Woman in Gold is not about an individual but about the team. A lawyer and grandmother will take on the Austrian government to do what is right. A film like this is built upon that magical word: chemistry. We all know the formula – but will you buy it?

Judy Dench and Steve Coogan nailed it in Philomena – so does this film which has so many parallels succeed in the same way? Reynolds and Mirren give it a good shot. There’s development in their characters and they learn to fight for, and even embrace, one another. Unfortunately the chemistry just never clicks. Reynolds never quite shines as he’s supposed to and it always seems that the film is about the individual rather than the pair. Perhaps I’m still forgiving Reynolds for Green Lantern, but really I think it’s just hard to shine when you’re next to a great like Helen Mirren (yes – she really is that good!). Like an uneven seesaw, it’s fun for one but not the other.

“I want restitution!”

Maria is fighting for restitution – a big word that basically means making right what’s wrong. She believes that what she wants is not simply to win, but to restore the art piece back to its rightful owner. The difficulty is that the Austrian government doesn’t want to admit that they’ve done anything wrong let alone give her back the art piece. Romans 3:23-25:

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…”

When it comes to the Bible, we see the same thing. God has sent his Son Jesus to die for us. This is a great act, an amazing act. It is good news we all need to hear. Yet we need to firstly admit that there is actually a problem. There’s many problems in the world, from poverty to broken relationships. However, the Bible says that Jesus came primarily to solve one problem: sin. That is, we all have wronged the creator of our universe. It’s not simply a matter of following Jesus. It’s also recognising that all along we’ve all had our backs turned to him this whole time, thinking that we are the ones that run our lives. We have wronged God. And the only way that we can make things right with Him is not through payments or artworks – but through faith in the Son whom he sent.

The film may be about the Woman in Gold, but what really sparkles is Mirren’s powerful performance. I’m giving Woman in Gold 4 out of 5 stars.

Woman in Gold is out in Australian cinemas this Thursday, 21st May. It is already screening in cinemas in the US and UK.

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