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Review: ‘Woman in Gold’ depicts a single victory of stunning consequence (Includes first-hand account)

After a war ends, its effects ripple through several generations as survivors attempt to reclaim a sense of normalcy and their struggles are imprinted on their children. Their experiences become a part of history, taught in classes and read in books; but there is still a human aspect that demands reparations. The repercussions of WWII has persisted for more than half a century as families and supporters continue to seek justice for wrongs committed. One of the most publicized is the attempts to recoup personal property confiscated/stolen by the Nazis, which includes priceless works of art “recovered” after the war by museums and private collectors — many pieces still remain unaccounted for as well. Woman in Gold is the story of a woman who wants to be reunited with a portrait of her aunt, but doing so involves removing it from an Austrian museum.

Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) is a Jewish WWII survivor. She narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna with her husband, forced to leave her parents behind as they fled to America. Her family was affluent and avid supporters of the arts. Her uncle commissioned several paintings by Gustav Klimt, including a large portrait of his beautiful wife who died before the invasion. The Nazis took everything from Maria’s home, including art, jewellery, candlesticks and musical instruments. When the war was over, her aunt’s likeness was hung in the Belvedere Museum and became a national icon known as “The Lady in Gold.” Decades later, Maria enlists the help of a friend’s lawyer son, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), to retrieve the art via the country’s restitution act. Years of arbitration on two continents followed, stirring difficult memories and calling into question Austria’s commitment to justice.

There are several aspects to this story. Though not the main focus, it is a court drama. The pair are forced to stand in front of many judges to plead their case of rightful ownership. However, several of the proceedings are also made to look ridiculous as the defendants claim outrageous repercussions as a result of Maria’s request. It’s a film about Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Maria experienced Hitler’s tyranny first-hand, while Randy is disassociated with his family’s history as the crimes of war were inflicted on his grandparents. But in taking up Maria’s struggle, he discovers and reconnects to his heritage. In addition, a young Austrian (Daniel Brühl) who offers his assistance locally is trying to make amends for the sins of his forefathers. Finally and most prominently, the movie deals with memories. Flashbacks transport Maria back in time to happier and sadder times, particularly when her fight takes her back to Vienna where she vowed never to return.

Mirren always delivers a top-notch performance, so it’s not surprising she’s wonderful in this film as well. Unsurprisingly, she dutifully worked with an accent coach to ensure the correct inflections were applied. Her odd couple relationship with Reynolds appears fairly natural as Randy invigorates Maria and she treats him like a child she never had. He’s especially good in the lawyer sequences where he must address a broader audience. Maria’s younger self is portrayed by the exceptionally talented Tatiana Maslany, who uses the skills employed on Orphan Black to display the many emotions of Maria’s youth and engage in a pretty intense chase scene.

There’s a lot going on in this film, but it works together to tell one story in a long and ongoing battle.

Director: Simon Curtis
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Tatiana Maslany

Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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