How far would you go to make sure the truth was told? The film Woman in Gold is based on the true story of Maria Atlmann, an Jewish woman who fled the Nazis when they invaded Vienna. Now much older and living in Los Angeles, California, Maria (Helen Mirren) lives by herself after the death of her sister and husband. She runs a small clothing store, claiming she will remain there until she dies. After going through her sister’s letters, she discovers that she may have a case to reclaim a painting of her beloved aunt that was stolen from her family by the Nazis. The challenge is that this piece of artwork just happens to be one of the greatest national treasures in Austria, “Woman in Gold” by Gustave Klimt. She asks the mother of an inexperienced attorney and good Jewish boy, Randol “Randy” Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). Due to a mother’s guilt, Randy agrees to meet with Maria and take a look at the case. Discovering how much the painting is worth, Randy convinces his new law firm to allow him a few days to go to Vienna and try to make a case with the new Art Restitution department that has risen up in a PR stunt by the Austrian government. A local Austrian investigative reporter, Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl), offers to lend a hand as he knows a good deal about the dealings of the Austrian government. Going through the agreed upon channels, Austria denies Maria’s claim and refuses to hear more from the octogenarian. Though he was hesitant to take the case at first, Randy suffers a brief breakdown visiting the Holocaust Memorial in Austria and realizes that he has to do something about the case not just for Maria, but for his family and all those who suffered. The two form a powerful friendship and risk everything to stand up for what they know is right.
Though completely ignored in the main cast, Tatiana Maslany deserves an incredible shoutout for her performance as a young Maria. Her role is crucial, showing the change from a comfortable life as a member of Vienna’s elite to running under cover of darkness with her husband just because of “the crime of being Jewish.” She managed to give me hope and break my heart over and over in this film, showing the absolute nightmare of life in Hitler’s Austria as well as the strength of a woman who is willing to survive. Maslany’s time on Orphan Black has served her well, as she has spent a good deal of time working on action sequences involving dodging bullets and running for one’s life. In one particular scene, a young Maria and her husband wait quietly outside the very last plane out of Vienna to Cologne. The SS approaches, takes away two other Jewish citizens, and Maria must keep a straight face and act as if nothing has happened.
Ryan Reynolds also shines in this film, combining a stunning ability to deliver powerful lines and enough comedy to keep the film from being overwhelmingly tragic. When his character Randy visits the Holocaust Memorial, his fingers run across the name of the Death Camp his great grandparents died in. Making a ploy that he needs to use the rest room, Randy sobs in the men’s room trying to come to terms with the past he has so casually shrugged off living in Los Angeles. Katie Holmes plays a tiny role as Randy’s wife, but is unbelievable in her selflessness.
There are so many scenes in this film that hit my heart that by the end I was in tears. In one particular scene, older Maria has just delivered a powerful speech to a panel regarding the return of stolen artworks. This speech takes place within the confines of the art school that Hitler was rejected from. As she descends the stairs out front a man in a suit tells her that her speech was passionate but “you people always make it about the Holocaust.” Gut shot. Her valuable words are ripped apart by someone who simply shrugs off the suffering of her people as an unimportant footnote in his history.
Atlman’s desire to just have the truth be told is important, especially with Holocaust denial still floating around. It isn’t just that the paintings were taken from her family, but that even her aunt’s Jewish heritage was scrubbed from the portrait so that even her identity was stolen. The film repeatedly shows Altman trying to find a solution with Austria, asking that they admit the horrible things that were done to her and other Jewish Families. Woman in Gold is a beautifully crafted film and important. As Maria Atlman infers, it is so deeply important that the younger generations remember so we never again repeat the horrors of the Holocaust.
Woman in Gold is now playing in Select Theaters.