14 Apr 2015

[Review] - Woman In Gold

Courtesy of BBC Films
If you haven't already, you really should see the documentary The Rape Of Europa. The documentary examines Hitler's obsession with art, and makes the case that the German invasions and occupations of WWII were as much motivated by his desire to obtain the great masterpieces of European history as any of his more evil intentions. It is a fascinating, heart breaking look at a largely unknown cost of the war: the cultural heritage of Europe was hobbled by those jackbooted gits, and the pieces that have survived are still largely unaccounted for. And that is a deeper shame.

The documentary relates two stories that have also recently been turned into films: that of the Monuments Men, and that of the plight of Maria Altmann and her lawsuit to have the Klimt painting "Woman in Gold" returned to her possession from the Austrian government. The former film, starring and directed by George Clooney, was a tonal mess. The latter, starring Helen Mirren as Mrs. Altmann, is a far better constructed film, but still manages to avoid packing the necessary emotional punch. It isn't a film that will be remembered and lauded and heralded as one of the greats. However, neither is it a forgettable waste of time and film. It is a competently done film, whose weaknesses balance it's strengths, and ultimately comes out in a wash.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that didn't need another reason to hate the Nazis, but are fine with it.

The greatest strength the film has going for it, as you might expect, is Helen Mirren. She could make dish water engaging. And she inhabits the role of Maria Altmann as we've seen her inhabit roles before. She has that quality of ability that makes her never seem to be acting, what Spielberg once described as "believes they're on an island of dinosaurs" acting. She is, in these moments, a Austrian refugee, struggling with the emotional weight of having had her life, home, and family stolen from her, and the force of coming to grips with that half a century later. She gives the role more than what the script provides, and that is the hallmark of a great actor.

Ryan Reynolds is not a great actor. The majority of the time, he's not even a good actor. And he manages to surprise here as Schoenberg, holding his own against Mirren in a way I never expected him to be capable of. Considering that his best role to date was in Buried, where he acts against himself for an hour and a half, I was impressed with his maturity in a role that the scripts makes the most demands upon. While Mirren is the emotional centre of the film, it is in Reynold's lawyer whom the ups and downs of the tone are dictated by. When he's making quips and engaging in banter, it's a lighthearted fair. When he's breaking down in a bathroom stall after visiting a war memorial, or making impassioned pleas, it's a serious piece about the injustice of war. Reynolds is far more familiar and comfortable with making with the funny, and he only just manages to sell the heavy stuff.

The film, written by playwrite Alexi Kaye Campbell, betrays his origins, as despite flip-flopping across the Atlantic, as the lawsuit travels from Vienna to Los Angeles and back, it feels very much like a play. There are redressed sets as the film repeatedly slips back in time, and a condensed and claustrophobic feeling at times. The events of the film span from 1998 to 2006, but a full half of the film focuses just on one week in 1998, when Altmann and Schoenberg first meet and become involved in the case. The rest of the film is a flipbook of history, jutting around from points in the 1920s, 30s, and the early 2000s. This is meant to maximize the emotional impact of the events of these times, but what it really manages to do is undercut the sacrifices Schoenberg bemoans. More than once, his apparent years of unemployment and dedication are reduced to a montage of him typing on a dated PC, and walking about in LA.

In fact, the bulk of the legal aspects of the case are skipped entirely, jumping from a preliminary hearing in the US, straight to the Supreme Court, then to Vienna for the final decision. This has the secondary effect of making it look all too easy (the Supreme Court scene is funny, but also laughably reductive). None of the hardships that Schoenberg mentions seem all that pressing. And the obstacles that he faces along the way are so halfhearted, they are marginal at best. Charles Dance puts in a few scenes with the world's least convincing American accent, as Schoenberg's boss, but he amounts to nothing. Katie Holmes likewise gets a paycheck for appearing as his wife, who in one scene challenges his decision to quit his job, then in the very next is 100% supportive of his epic quest. Every antagonist that drops into his path folds like a lawn chair, making the entire journey seem pathetically simple. The refrain in the film is that Altmann's cause is one of justice, but being on the just side does not mean that the sea parts for you, and allows you to walk to freedom. The film just isn't interested in making things difficult for the sympathetic heroes.

The emotional gut punch, and all films featuring the Nazis must have one, because they were utter utter bastards and that can never be not remembered, comes from the flashbacks. Mirrian crying at windows is one thing, but the film does do wonders taking us back to the 20's and 30's and showing us exactly what it was that was taken from Altmann. The painting is a metaphor for her life, and the flashbacks show that life. the younger Altmann is played by Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany, who is really just very impressive in everything she does, and clearly has a gift for linguistics. As someone who isn't, I bought her Austrian. Perhaps Austrians wouldn't, but Maslany was the character that I most felt for. That being said, this film is brazenly emotionally manipulative. Her goodbye with her parents goes on too long, and proceeds from affecting to ridiculous, and her escape from Vienna is unnecessarily action film-ish, an island of adrenaline in an otherwise dulcet bay.

The story is an interesting one, even if this isn't the most interesting way to tell it. There is a struggle throughout to balance the reality of the case with the themes of the case. Daniel Brühl's character, for instance, is pointless to the plot, but integral to the theme of there being a duel identity to modern Austria. So when he insists that Schoenberg acknowledge that they could not have succeeded without him, that rings hollow, as he physically did nothing. He was there solely as a counterpoint to the other, less then positive Austrian characters in the film, who are all unrepentantly selfish and irredeemable, because this is also a film that enjoys it's absolutes, with no margins. As I say, in the end it is a fine film, without overt success or failure. It just is what it is, and it does do a damned fine job of making us dislike Nazis still and again.

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