Woman in Gold (2015): Then and Now

Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) was an Austrian Symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau (Vienna Secession) movement. His major works include paintings, murals, sketches, and other art objects, but the most recognizable piece probably is the painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), commonly known as “The Woman in Gold”.

The painting measures 54″ x 54″, oil, silver and gold on canvas, a highly embellished work reflecting the elegant lady active in the Viennese art circle, patron and muse of Klimt’s, Adele Bloch-Bauer. Adele was married to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, an Austrian Jewish industrialist who commissioned Klimt to do the two portraits of his wife. It had been hanging in his home until seized by the Nazis.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Source: Wikipedia

After the war, the famous painting had been hanging in Austria’s federal art museum, the Galerie Belvedere, as a national treasure, until a near eight-year legal battle finally decided its restitution back to the hands of Adele and Ferdinand’s niece, Maria Altmann, who had escaped to the United States before the War broke out. The long legal fight to gain back the painting’s rightful ownership is the focus of this movie.

Arts looted by the Nazis have their screen time twice in the past year, first The Monuments Men, and now Woman in gold. Important subject but unfortunately both films fall short of cinematic rendering. Director Simon Curtis’s handling in Woman in Gold emits less glimmer than his previous My Week with Marilyn.

Helen Mirren delivers a fine performance as the determined yet conflicting Altmann, who, on the one hand, wants to see justice done in the restitution of her family heirloom but reluctant to re-open a traumatic chapter of her life and return to Austria for the case. She remembers her Aunt Adele well, with some endearing and awestruck moments beholding her beauty. The film handles the shifting between the past and present quite well. It is heart wrenching for a daughter to have to make a hasty escape from her home, leaving her parents behind as the Nazis take over the country.

The David and Goliath legal battle is handled by a young and inexperienced Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg. Yes, that’s the grandson of the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, who had escaped to the U.S. in time to avoid the Holocaust, just like Altmann. In 2004, the young lawyer argues his case Republic of Austria v. Altmann in the U.S. Supreme Court, and in January, 2006, heads over to Austria to present his arguments in front of a panel for a binding arbitration. An emotional Altmann sits beside Schoenberg as they hear the decision announced by the panel of three Austrian judges ruling in their favour.

The choice of Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg looks like a miscast. Something’s missing… But then again, it could be the screenplay, maybe infusing more cinematic moments, or cutting some banal scenes and dialogues would help. Katie Holmes who plays Randol’s wife and Daniel Brühl (excellent in Rush, 2013) as a helpful journalist are incidentals. I can understand condensing the almost decade-long legal story into 109 minutes with an ending that is already known is itself a difficult feat. So all the more we need a more effective screenplay.

However, for someone who did not know about the details of this piece of art history, the movie still captured my attention. I watched it like a documentary. Not knowing the details of this legal case, I found the movie informative in taking me through the obstacles, albeit in synopsis format and simplification.

The beginning is probably one of the most appealing sequence of the whole movie, and that’s a close up on the technique the painter Klimt uses on his painting, meticulously forming a gold leaf and pasting it on his work in progress. Unfortunately, the scene is way too short to allow us to savour. This may well be the only artistic spot a viewer will get.

In a post-script text, we learn that Altmann sold “The Woman in Gold” to Ronald Lauder for $135 million in 2006, at the time the highest purchase price on record for a painting. Those living in or visiting New York City now have a chance to see the current exhibition at the Neue Galerie – opened by Lauder in 2001 – “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold”, April 2 – Sept. 7, 2015.

In August last year, Lauder, as President of the World Jewish Congress, wrote a moving op-ed for the NYT about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. He ends with this: “The Jewish people understand all too well what can happen when the world is silent. This campaign of death must be stopped.”

It’s all about speaking out. That’s what makes this movie important. I can’t help but imagine though: what if it were Klimt who made it…

~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Woman in Gold (2015): Then and Now”

    1. Denise,

      True. But then again, as I mentioned in the post, this is an important movie in that it attempts to chronicle a piece of art and world history that ought to be told. So, despite its flaws, I’ll still say, go for it. 😉


  1. I understand the screenplay was by a first time writer — perhaps the reason for the banal bits you mentioned. My mom’s birthday is coming up, perhaps we’ll go see this together. Thanks for your review!


    1. nikkipolani,

      You’re right… and I wish him all the best. I hope he’ll continue to pursue whatever his passion lies, acting or writing, esp. writing, just my partiality. As for your mom/daughter bonding on that special occasion, I think this will be a sweet Birthday gift for your mom. Look forward to seeing pics of that birthday dinner. 😉


  2. I know that though this has received so-so reviews, it is still tops on my list and part of my planned movie marathon as soon as my work projects end! (I’m just hoping everything is still here by then! We have Marigold, Kingsman, Alice and this!) I’ve always been captivated by this play and the whole issue of stolen art by the Nazis so I’m definitely looking forward to it — with the appropriate reservation!


    1. Jeanie,

      Oh I’ve seen plenty of movies with so-so reviews. We all enjoy the experience, and know nothing’s perfect. This one, I was watching it like a doc, eagerly finding out what’s going to happen next, since I didn’t know the specifics of the case and the history of this painting. Go for it. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.


  3. I am disappointed to hear this isn’t as good as I expected it would be. Oh well. I’ll probably still see it eventually on DVD but I won’t have high expectations for it.


    1. Stefanie,

      Don’t be too disappointed. You see, according to the Ripple Rating System (Yes, I do have a system!), 2.5 Ripples is “Average”, not a disaster. What it lacks in aesthetic and cinematic appeal it compensates with facts and info. So, it’s worth a viewing, for we need to know this piece of art history.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had wondered if you would review this. I saw the trailer recently, and was intrigued enough to look up some other reviews. They all were more or less “so-so-but-ok-enough-to-see.” I’m interested in the story (which I didn’t know) and the painting (which I do know, and love) to be willing to see it. I’d sure love to see the painting!


    1. Linda,

      You’ll find this movie interesting. For lack of aesthetic appeal you get plenty of history. Important info. I wasn’t aware of the true story behind this painting, and it’s all enjoyable to be presented the info, like, watching a film in class and not having had to listen to a dull lecture. 😉 As I replied to Stefanie above, go click on the link to my Ripple Rating System, 2.5 Ripples is not a disaster.


  5. Good review Arti that manages to capture my mixed feelings too. I can’t quite put my finger on reason myself, but I think it must partly be the script. I thought Mirren was good. I think she conveys the conflicted nature of her character well, but the script seemed to make every challenge of her and her lawyer too easily overcome. It took 8 years but we didn’t really get to “feel” the tension that that length of time must have entailed. We were told he was in debt and it must have been stressful for his family but we don’t really “see” that. Nonetheless, I did enjoy watching it. I think one of the most moving scenes was that of her leaving her parents.


    1. WG,

      Yes, that’s the scene that I found most moving in the whole movie… leaving behind elderly parents to escape to freedom. Another movie I saw recently also left me with some disappointment is Far From the Madding Crowd. Have you seen it? The cinematography is beautiful, and Carey Mulligan is such a fine and talented actress. But I lament (for lack of a better word) that the director did not quite do a spot-on job. Love to hear your always astute view on movies. Here’s my review of it.


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