Maria Altmann just wants back that portrait of her aunt, the pretty one that used to hang in her family’s home when she was a child, and which reminds her of her aunt, who died far too young. Problem is, that home was in Vienna in the 1930s, and when the Nazis swooped in, they confiscated the painting and all her family’s other belongings. And despite Austria’s new spirit of reconciliation in the late 90s, including efforts toward art restitution, this painting is different. It’s Gustav Klimt’s famous “Woman in Gold” — now known as “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” — and it holds a place of pride in the national Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. It is “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria,” and the country isn’t going to give it up easily.
Woman in Gold the movie is the true story of how Altmann (Helen Mirren: Red 2, Monsters University), with the help of Los Angeles lawyer and family friend Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds: The Voices, The Croods), fought for years, starting in 1998, in courtrooms and boardrooms in the U.S. and Austria to establish her claim on the painting (and others). It’s a little bit of a Frankenstein monster of a film, stitching together such disparate elements as family history, courtroom drama, and even suspense thriller, and perhaps it shouldn’t work at all. And yet it’s a deeply moving and very satisfying piece of entertainment, because all those elements work together to form a tapestry of painful memories intertwined with family pride in a way that is universally recognizable. Flashbacks to the 20s and 30s culminate in the gripping escape of young Maria (Tatiana Maslany: The Vow, Flash of Genius) and her new husband, Fritz (Max Irons: The Riot Club, The Host), from Nazi-occupied Vienna, a trauma that still haunts older Maria. And it becomes one she has to confront when she returns to the city at long last, having lived in America ever since her escape, with Randy to investigate their claim. His only initial motivation is money — the “Woman in Gold” is worth a lot — but he discovers something else: a connection with a past that he has ignored. His grandfather, whom Maria knew as a youngster and Randy never knew at all, was classical composer Arnold Schoenberg, and there’s a lovely scene in which he realizes that his grandfather’s music cannot and has not been kept hostage like Maria’s painting has been.
It’s easy to forget that every piece of art that hangs on a museum wall has its own story, and has its own people who love it for reasons other than its creative or historical merit. This is a lovely look at the extraordinary drama and history behind just one painting, and the unexpected power it held for one woman. It may make you look at every piece of art with a new wonder for the unspoken mystery behind it.