The Woman on Gold Review - Lush Cinematography

"The Woman in Gold", released 4/1/15, rated PG, directed by Simon Curtis is based on actual historical events. It stars Dame Helen Mirren as elderly Austrian-born Jewish Holocaust escapee,  Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as her attorney Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg). It also features Tatiana Maslaney in the role of the young Maria Altmann.

 

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The drama is centered on the 7 year long legal battle initiated by Schoenberg for Altmann and the ultimate restitution through arbitration of five paintings by Austrian an avante-garde artist Gustav Klimt. Klimt, now an acknowledged genius, was the son of a failed gold engraver. The film opens upon the scene of Klimt applying gilt to canvas, and directing his model to pose.

The title refers to the painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1", renamed "The Lady in Gold", to remove its Jewish reference, a gold and silver burnished  four and a half foot square Byzantine inspired masterpiece, as well as a portrait of Altmann's aunt, with whom she was raised. Adele, wife of sugar-beet entrepreneur Ferdinand Bauer, died in 1925 of meningitis, leaving a will indicating the paintings were to go to the Austrian government. Based upon this testament, the Austrian government refused to return the paintings.

 

Ferdinand Bauer fled Austria for Switzerland in 1938 after its annexation by the Nazis (known as the Anschluss) and the paintings were confiscated by the Germans, remaining in the Belvedere Palace, a state sponsored art museum in Vienna. Ferdinand and Adele were childless. When he died, he left the paintings to Maria and her sister. The films action really begins when Maria buries her sister and presumably discovers the will.

Much of the plot is developed through poignant flashbacks of Altmann's obviously wealthy, close knit and loving family, in the years immediately prior to and during the Anschluss. The scenes where she and her new husband,( an opera singer) flee the Germans, leaving her parents behind are among the most thrilling. We see nothing of the husband or parents ever again, nor do we learn anything of her life until 60 years later, in Los Angeles.

Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer - Detail

 

Schoenberg is a shy and apparently ineffectual young lawyer when they meet, and Altmann an octogenarian initially afraid even to step foot in Austria, but together they form a bond based on  common cause to defeat the Austrian government and secure justice. Dame Helen Mirren gives a magnificently understated performance as the diffident patrician who confronts the demons of the past.

The legal scenes are too few, but the best in the film, as Schoenberg succeeds in keeping the case alive against, ironically, Jewish opponents representing Austria, both in LA and, ultimately, before the U.S. Supreme Court. At one point, Schoenberg tells Justice Rehnquist he doesn't understand the question and Rehnquist replies, "Neither do I"!

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Schoenberg actually quits his new job with a well-known law firm to continue representing Altmann, and becomes acquainted with his own heritage when they attend a concert of his Uncles work. It is a truly thrilling moment when the panel of Austrian judges cede the art to Altmann.

The film has been criticized for being long on speeches and schmaltz and short on character and plot development. However, there has been much praise for the lush cinematography, Mirren's acting and the warm portrayal of a great piece of justice. At the end of the movie, Mirren muses aloud that she is thinking of selling the painting of her aunt to The son of cosmetics giant Estée Lauder. We are also advised that Schoenberg became a specialist in art restitution law, and that, as of the time the film wrapped, over 100,000 pieces of art stolen by the Nazis remain unclaimed.

Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer - The Golden Adele

 

Research reveals that 99 years after Klimt painted Adele, the painting was auctioned at Christies for 80 million dollars, the highest price to date for a painting, and sold later that year to Lauder for 130 million. As specified by Altmann, it has been and will remain perpetually on display in New York. Incidentally, and wonderfully, Altmann, who came in for criticism in the press for selling all 5 paintings, left her estate to charity.


For a fuller account of these facts see "The Lady in Gold, The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimts Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer", by Anne Marie O'Connor, Knopf, 2012.

Randol Schoenberg and portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt

 

Photo: The Woman in Gold website

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