Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, completed in 1907, is a luminous, Byzantine-inspired bauble, the figure of its subject melting almost seamlessly into a river of exquisite decoration. Though Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, pays homage to the portrait by reimagining the true-life tale of its creation, theft, and reclamation, it scarcely suggests the ornate drama of the painting itself, preferring the clean lines of formula to Klimt’s adventurous aesthetic. This is, perhaps, the strongest indication of the film’s central concern—not art as art, but rather the fleeting glimpse each work offers of the human element behind its production. By turns banal and surprisingly moving, Woman in Gold thus constructs a provocative argument for the importance of “provenance,” of the personal touch the term implies, and yet does so by presenting the history of a singularly striking image in the impersonal terms of the courtroom procedural.
As Jewish Austrian emigré Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) retains attorney Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to pursue the restitution of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, stolen from her family by the Nazis and subsequently housed in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, Woman in Gold hews closely to the clarion call that followed the Holocaust: “Never forget.” “I have to do what I can to keep these memories alive,” Maria tells Randy, himself the grandson of Jewish Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. “Because people forget, you see. And then, of course, there’s justice.” It’s their “shared history,” as Maria says, that binds the protagonists together as they wade into an Austrian bureaucracy fiercely protective of its tarnished “patrimony,” and much of the film focuses on the protracted legal battle over the portrait’s rightful ownership. Though Mirren intermittently charms as the prim, slightly impish Maria, turning the unexpected playfulness of her performances in The Queen and The Last Station further toward comedy, Woman in Gold often appears afraid of the rougher emotions it might dredge up; the palette is so muted, the camerawork so tactful, that the film is forced to displace any sense of the past’s still-raw wounds onto the dialogue’s many statements of purpose. “It wasn’t enough to rob your family and try to destroy it,” Austrian journalist and Altmann ally Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) says to this end. “No. You had to be eradicated from history.”
As a result, the film undermines its most powerful instinct, which is to draw a connection between the provenance of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and the need to remember those whose destruction its theft represents. With the exception of a daring escape from Vienna on the eve of World War II, the series of flashbacks woven through Woman in Gold, featuring newlywed Maria (Tatiana Maslany), her husband (Max Irons), and her prosperous family, aren’t in themselves worthy of note. But in concert with the modern-day search for evidence of the painting’s lineage, this attention to Maria’s kinship with Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which depicts her aunt, evokes the poignant sense that provenance isn’t only a measure of authenticity, but also a form of belonging. As Maria stands before the portrait in the Belvedere, or as Randy listens to a Viennese chamber orchestra perform his grandfather’s music, Woman in Gold briefly suggests the human texture of cultural heritage, framing the restitution of art stolen by the Nazis, like the museums and memorials that reach across Europe, as a refusal to forget.
Unfortunately, in its mostly expressionless treatment of the process by which Maria repairs this profound rupture in her past, the film evades all but the most careful commonplaces about the relationship between the viewer and the work of art. By dint of the schematic writing and the insipid style, Woman in Gold dispenses with the figurative possibilities of the image in favor the most literal interpretation, which turns out to be as unsatisfying as it is heartfelt: “People see a masterpiece by one of Austria’s finest artists,” Maria says of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, “but I see my aunt.” Unlike Klimt, it seems, Woman in Gold overlooks art’s potential to illuminate what we otherwise cannot see, and to bring to life histories we can scarcely imagine.