“Woman in Gold”—A Glimmer of Retribution

 

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The movie “Woman In Gold” is based on the remarkable story of the octogenarian Austrian-American woman, Maria Altmann (played by the always sensational Helen Mirren). Maria fights to reclaim the Gustav Klimt masterpiece of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy art collector of Klimt paintings. “Portrait of the Jewess Adele”. More popularly known as “The Woman in Gold”, this masterpiece was the Austrian equivalent of the “Mona Lisa”.    475494-a2c85abe-0044-11e5-8cc7-4c6583bd2816

Art repatriation–the return of art looted or stolen from its country of origin or former owners (or their heirs)—is just becoming a political maelstrom. In “Woman of Gold” (and other films such as “Monument Men”), we see the cultural and national pride shown by mostly US and European museums, which currently house stolen art from their wartime and colonial past. During World War II, the Nazis plundered an estimated 750,000 artworks including priceless paintings by Van Gogh, Degas, Vermeer, and Michelangelo. Though many paintings and other significant cultural artifacts were recovered by the “Monuments Men,” many were destroyed or auctioned off at extremely low prices. In “Woman of Gold” we are privy to the confrontation between and among the Austrian government, Austrian Gallery and Museum (formerly the Belvedere Palace), the U.S. Supreme Court and Maria Altman.

 

Woman in GoldSeeking justice for the Nazis’ seizure of her wealthy family’s art collection, almost six decades later (1998) Maria engages the legal counsel of a young inexperienced American lawyer (the surprising Ryan Reynolds). They  petition the Austrian government for the return of five paintings by Gustav Klimt, including the most famous, “Portrait of Adele”. Mirren is a formidable power to be reckoned with. Supported by Ryan Reynolds (as her attorney, Randall Schoenberg), Daniel Brühl, a sympathetic Austrian journalist) and Tatiana Maslany (superb as the twenty-year-old Maria), we see a finely-honed film about the little guy against the establishment.

The courtroom drama is only one of the plots in “Woman of Gold”, an equally interesting subplot being the personal backstory of Maria Altmann. In a series of flashbacks we see Maria with her privileged banker family, forced to suffer unspeakable hardship and humiliation in Nazi Vienna. These paintings are a fight for her birthright and her family’s dignity, which eclipses the $20 million value of the “Woman in Gold”. Also essential in understanding his determination to pursue the case to the Supreme Court is the young attorney’s backstory.

“Woman in Gold” is appealing on several levels: as history, narrative, and as emotional gratification that retribution does happen sometimes. Maria’s story is also a poignant one, of memory, family ties, and growing old. Highly recommended for a broad audience!

Note: In June 2006 “Woman in Gold” was purchased for the Neue Galerie in Manhattan for the record sum of 135 million dollars and is now part of the permanent collection on view there.

 

 

“Safe House”–A Safe Bet

It seems only fair to see a dick-flick after having recommended rom-coms for Valentine’s Day.  And did I pick a winner–my husband gave it a 10, which is very rare for him.  The movie is “Safe House” and it stars and is produced by the exceptional Denzel Washington.

No ordinary action-pic–although it has ample car chases, staccato bursts of exploding bombs, violent fights with guns and knives, and impossible jumps from one rooftop to another–there are still enough surprising plot twists to keep you surprised throughout.

The story is fairly routine–I think Bruce Willis starred in a similar plot in “16 Blocks”  –an ex-CIA operative gone rogue (Denzel Washington as Tobin Frost) and a clueless “nube” as the novice CIA agent, Matt Weston   (Ryan Reynolds) who has to guard Frost in a safe house and bring him to headquarters (to report to bureaucrats played by Sam Shephard, Vera Farmiga, and Brendan Gleeson).  An extremely difficult task for Matt since Tobin is captured in South Africa, and Matt has only been assigned there for little more than one year.

Denzel Washington superbly underplays his character, allowing his face to communicate what his life as a CIA agent must have been like.  Matt doesn’t know whom to believe, but has respect for authority and for the CIA’s integrity.  This film is part “Bourne Identity” and part Frontline’s “Dark Side” fictionalized.  As the viewer you will be reminded of quite a few spy thrillers especially Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy-based film blockbusters. The cinematography is several magnitudes better than the usual special effects.  One helicopter shot of their SUV speeding down a desolate road is a work of art, a beautiful abstract print in still motion.

What did I like best about this movie?  I wouldn’t give it a 10, but a much-better-than-average 8-to-8.5. It comes down to character development–and though this is first and foremost a guy’s action-packed blockbuster, there is something for the rest of us.  What do people sacrifice in service to the government that others don’t know about and don’t care to know anything about? Furthermore, when does that well-intentioned agent say “enough is enough” in a heroic exculpatory act in the name of his or her own integrity and personal life?  (Think “Fair Game” reviewed November 28, 2010). This film tries to deal with these questions–and it is superior to “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” as well as others in this genre.  A superb cast actualizes the promise of the tale. The ending sets up the audience to expect a sequel and with this first narrative, I hope there is one.