Having the courage of your convictions is so much easier said than done. Writing wrongs committed decades ago is well-nigh impossible—especially if the actual culprits are long dead and their survivors/victims are oceans away.
Yet, in the truly remarkable case of the restitution of Klimt masterpieces (most notably Woman in Gold) to their rightful owners, the hurdles needed to be jumped over go far beyond Olympic proportions.
The sanctioned theft happened during World War II as the Nazis made their heinous mark in Vienna, rounding up Jews and carrying off their possessions for the personal use of the superior race or—eventually once the battle was lost—into Austria’s pride-filled museums, simultaneously celebrating excellence in art while making a mockery of justice.
But then the powers that be hadn’t counted on the tenacity of two Viennese-infused Americans: Maria Altmann—whose father owned the paintings before having them stolen as he looked on helplessly and struggling lawyer Randal Schoenberg—whose grandfather’s 12-tone system changed the world of music forever despite much criticism and ridicule by the artistic establishment who could never see a future beyond unbridled melody and consonance.
No stranger to the arts in all of their many forms, director Curtis Strange has crafted a masterwork of his own, taking the life stories of the two principals and having Alexi Kaye Campbell bind them into a fascinating whole that most dramatically and—at just the right times—humourously bring the story of art-against-all-odds to the screen in splendid fashion.
Casting Helen Mirren as Maria is pure gold all unto itself. Every line—entirely believable accent, wink, bit of body language and extraordinarily nuanced visage will make any viewer understand that this extraordinary actor is Maria. Playing opposite (in almost every way from sex to demeanour, to style, to outlook), Ryan Reynolds more than holds his own with his wily, fanciful client (the flashbacks are superb and a marvel of seamless editing). In time, he inherits his grandfather’s ability of finding a new way to reach the truth using a very circuitous route, resulting in the modern-era Austrian élite becoming totally confused and dumbfounded.
The writing does have a few Hollywood holes (notably the escape scene where the Nazi minder leaves his charges alone, opting for a cigarette), but the set piece “drive a little faster” is trotted out just enough to draw a smile, develop character and serve as metaphor.
A wide variety of music adds much to the tone of the production: most magical of all is Maria’s wedding party where a Klezmer band drives everyone to the dance floor in giddy joy only to morph into the unrelenting “beat” of jackboots filling the streets below with a party that wouldn’t know the meaning of fairness and respect.
Maria’s Aunt Adele (captivatingly portrayed by Antje Traue) was the model for Klimt’s Woman in Gold. Who knew then that this glorious study of such a beautiful form surrounded by “all that glitters” would have such a storied life. Thankfully, this tale—at last—has a satisfying ending that didn’t have to be invented by the artistic trust. JWR