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And Then There's Justice: Woman In Gold

Updated on September 12, 2015

In the 1990s, Austrian authorities began an effort to offer restitution to Jewish citizens who could claim theft of their possessions by the Nazis during the Third Reich. Woman In Gold tells the efforts of one of those people, and the lawyer who she called upon to help her. The story begins in 1998 Los Angeles, after widowed shop owner Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) has buried her older sister and discovered some letters among the sister's possessions that indicate that some paintings in Austria may still legally belong to Maria. To help Maria determine if she has a case, she asks lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her with the claims process. He has just begun working with a prestigious law firm, but they usually don't take these sorts of cases. A partner, Mr. Sherman (Charles Dance), lets Randy investigate, but prefers Randy's billable hours be directed toward other sorts of cases. Randy wishes to please both his new employer and his client, since he and his wife Pam (Katie Holmes) are expecting their second child.

The investigation takes Randy and Maria to Austria to make their claim to the paintings, which were done by Gustav Klimt. They most notably include Woman In Gold, where the painter used her beloved aunt Adele (Antje Traue) as the subject. As the Nazis rose to power, they confiscated the paintings and other valuables and kept them for themselves. Young Maria (Tatiana Maslansky) and her husband Fredrick (Max Irons) escaped the worst of the treatment. The paintings, meanwhile, found their way to the Belvedere Gallery, and government officials want to keep these works, citing they are a part of Austria's national identity. They also cite Adele's will as a basis for ownership. In his researach on the paintings, Randy discovers the Klimts have greatly appreciated in value, as well as a reason to challenge the will. Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl), himself the son of a Nazi, helps them understand the restitution process, and the problems that will arise with their claims. The board deciding on the claim rules in favor of the government. However, when Randy purchases a book about this art, he hits upon an idea where he can sue the Austrian government over these paintings.

Woman In Gold, a movie based on the efforts of Altmann and Schoenberg, tells an engrossing story about two types of injustice. The first injustice came at the hands of Nazis who despised Jews, but didn't mind taking their valuables. The second came at the hands of Austrian authorities who believed that national identity was somehow threatened by people making a legitimate claim of seized property. However, both Maria and Randy, whose grandfather was the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, can claim they are part of that national identity by their heritage. They appreciate the worth of the paintings in terms that are more than monetary, so they want to do right by the works on their terms. These terms would be less necessary had the rights of Maria and so many others been so egregiuosly been violated. The screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, a playwright making his big screen debut, fairly shows the concerns of both sides. Director Simon Curtis, whose previous big screen effort was My Week With Marilyn in 2011, carefully paces the work to show the years of effort Altmann and Schoenberg made in establishing their rights.

Mirren, as Maria, gives Woman In Gold a strong pulse. Maria, her husband, and her sister avoided the worst of the Nazi atrocities. Years later, she alone remains to start the process of restitution, only to have bureaucrats behave as though their rights outweighed hers. Their attitude only strengthens Maria's resolve. Mirren also brings a bit of levity to the part, especially when she scolds Randy for his appearance and for manners that don't meet her approval. The role of Randy is the best acting I've seen from Reynolds, who usually fails to impress me. Randy is young, earnest, and a bit idealistic, in spite of starting a law office that was unsuccessful. Yet, he's willing to help Maria, and seems at times to be a Sancho Panza to Maria's Don Quixote. Maria wishes to tilt the proverbial windmills, while Randy learns about art restitution law in the process. When she sours in the quest, Randy finds the statute he thinks will help Maria. He shows how much his heritage means to him when he and Maria visit Vienna's Holocaust memorial. Bruhl and Holmes provide solid, though minimal, support. Jonathan Pryce has a cameo as Justice William Rehnquist, while Curtis's wife, Elizabeth McGovern, makes her cameo appearance as Judge Florence-Marie Cooper, whose ruling allows Randy and Maria to continue the process of reclamation.

No act will ever undo the actions of a regime that stole from so many people, and ultimately stole life from most of them. Both the Austrian government and the claimants know that, but each side knows an effort needs to be made to right some of the terrible wrongs of the past. Woman In Gold shows where righting a wrong can get complicated. Each side wants the art to enjoy admirers for generations to come, but Maria Altmann wants to have the say with regards to where the painting of her aunt will reside. She realizes nothing will allow her to keep the artwork privately, but she's not going to let someone else decide that without a fight. She finds the man to help her, and he surprises himself and her with what they can do in that situation.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Woman In Gold 3.5 stars. What is the value of justice?


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