3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang
Director Simon Curtis’ absorbing, ripped-from-the-headlines drama could be considered the All the President’s Men of the art world.
Much the way that 1976 classic made journalistic investigation so fascinating, scripter Alexi Kaye Campbell breathes intrigue and tension into what — in the real world — unfolded as an extended, research-heavy, David vs. Goliath courtroom battle. Campbell has the advantage of the considerable tension surrounding the saga’s Holocaust origins; the result, while sometimes sliding into clichéd melodrama, builds to a suspenseful finale.
On one side of the dispute: octogenarian Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) and her callow, almost laughably inexperienced attorney, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds).
On the other side: the entire country of Austria, personified by condescending museum owners and Ministry of Culture officials.
The situation at issue: actual ownership of five paintings by Austrian master Gustav Klimt, most notably his legendary Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a work iconic enough to be recognized even by people who know nothing about art.
As it happens, Adele Bloch-Bauer was Maria Altmann’s aunt ... and therein lies the tale.
Curtis and Campbell divide their narrative between the late 1930s, leading up to and immediately following Hitler’s annexation of Austria; and the late 1990s, beginning with a stack of letters found by Maria, in the twilight of her comfortable years in California, following the death of her beloved sister. The letters’ contents raise intriguing questions, prompting Maria to seek advice from Randy, a budding attorney and the grandson of a family friend.
Randy initially wants nothing to do with what he perceives is a ludicrous, hopeless case; he’s much too busy trying to fit in at the prestigious legal firm where he has just been hired by the authoritative senior partner (Charles Dance, in a brief but suitably intimidating role). But Maria, imperious in her own right, plays the “Jewish heritage” card ... and, before he quite realizes what has happened, Randy is hooked.
An exploratory visit to Austria hardens his interest, after he and Maria are rebuffed by the aforementioned cultural officials. Despite the restitution law passed by Austria’s Green Party in 1998, they discover — with the assistance of Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) — that this supposed display of “justice” is little more than a PR ploy, which the country’s nationalists have no intention of applying to any truly revered artworks.
And nothing is more revered than Klimt’s masterpiece, regarded, as Czernin explains, as “Austria’s Mona Lisa.”
Ah, but never underestimate the stubbornness of youth. Now well and truly irritated, Randy begins a herculean effort to sue Austria in U.S. courts, under the aegis of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act: an audacious ploy regarded by all — even Maria, at her bleaker moments — as a fool’s errand.
Meanwhile, six decades earlier...
Interwoven flashback sequences depict the loving Bloch-Bauer family during happier times, focusing on Maria’s marriage, at age 21 (now played by Tatiana Maslany), to opera singer Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann (Max Irons). Not quite a year later, the 1938 Anschluss brings the Nazis into power in Austria — where they’re greeted with parades and flowers, in a scene Curtis orchestrates for maximum nausea — and the Jewish Bloch-Bauer family finds itself under siege.
(We must remember that Austria, at times, was even more gleefully enthusiastic than Germany, when it came to persecuting its Jewish citizens. The collective Mauthausen-Gusan concentration camps, among the worst, were based in Upper Austria.)
We know that Maria, at least, will escape; her eventual new life in California is obvious proof. But how this will come about — and who else will or won’t be able to join her — generates considerable anxiety, particularly because Curtis teases us, by repeatedly cutting away from impending catastrophe, to return to the more recent half of the story.
Mirren is delightfully regal, stern and fussy, easily inhabiting the sort of aristocratic matron that she and Judi Dench play so impeccably. Although it’s amusing to watch the way Maria chides and scolds Randy into a better version of himself, Mirren’s stand-out scenes come during her character’s dejected, doubtful moments, particularly as months and then years pass. She’s an old woman, after all, and we can see the grinding toll of frustration and weariness.
No scene has more snap, though, than when Maria initially rejects Randy’s suggestion that they visit Austria personally; the acid-tinged scorn in Mirren’s voice is palpable, as Maria point-blank refuses to ever again set foot in the country that treated her family so horribly. We understand the venom, and know that she means it ... except that, for the story to progress, Maria must change her mind. Mirren sells that moment just as persuasively.
Reynolds is mis-cast. He probably was selected for his ability to wear nervous inexperience like a badly fitting suit, and he handles that well enough. But sadly — and quite damaging, to the story’s potential power — Reynolds never shakes his image as a light romantic lead. His features have no dramatic heft, and we keep expecting him, always at the wrong moment, to burst into one of his characteristic grins. He simply doesn’t sell the role.
The actual E. Randol Schoenberg may have been somewhat raw when he agreed to represent Maria Altmann — although, frankly, I doubt that — but he clearly would have been serious, resolute and talented. Reynolds’ underlying vibe undercuts the film at every turn.
He shares a few scenes with Katie Holmes, as Randy’s patient and devoted wife Pam; theirs clearly is a warm and loving relationship, and the Reynolds/Holmes chemistry isn’t bad. But Pam remains an under-written sidebar character, whose presence seems superfluous (obviously not the desired effect).
Just in passing, Randy also happens to be the grandson of celebrated Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg: a detail given symbolic heft a few times throughout this film.
Maslany, in great contrast, is resourceful fire and fury as Maria’s younger self: no surprise there, given the actress’ talents as the multiple-role-playing star of TV’s Orphan Black. Maslany is an impressively skilled young actress, and Maria’s climactic scenes with her parents are powerful indeed.
Brühl, who recently delivered memorable work in both Rush and A Most Wanted Man, works hard at a difficult role: not because the part itself is particularly demanding — he’s quite convincing as journalist determined to right wrongs — but because he also serves as this film’s “explainer.” Brühl is saddled with a lot of expository dialogue that bridges both historical and contemporary gaps, and that always risks blunting our involvement with events, due to too much said-bookism.
Brühl, happily, minimizes such damage.
Several familiar faces pop up in cameo roles, notably Elizabeth McGovern, as a sympathetic California judge; and Jonathan Pryce, spot-on in his take-no-prisoners depiction of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Although I understand the dramatic value of this film’s extended Holocaust sequences, the trade-off is unfortunate; in order to hold the film at a comfortable two hours, Campbell’s script glosses over or completely omits quite a few factual details. Randy’s wife Pam isn’t the only character treated cursorily; the same can be said of Maria’s husband Fritz, who sorta-kinda just disappears at one point.
And while we get several glimpses of the adorable Beverly Hills clothing shop that has granted Maria a livelihood for a great many years, no mention is made of the fact that Maria Altmann was responsible for introducing women in California — and, indeed, the entire country — to the wonders of cashmere sweaters.
Come on ... I can understand the wisdom of omitting sidebar characters such as Fritz’s brother Bernard, but failing to mention that Maria became the veritable “face of cashmere” for several decades? That’s just silly.
Campbell’s script needs fine-tuning, although the story as presented certainly benefits from the heartfelt sincerity of all involved. And, as often is the case with earnest dramas lifted from actual events, its greatest value may be in the mainstream light it shines on a genuinely fascinating legal saga, and the possibility that curious viewers will seek out journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor’s absorbing book, The Lady in Gold, along with the two documentaries made before Maria’s death: Stealing Klimt and Adele’s Wish.
Meanwhile, Curtis’ engaging film is a thoughtful reminder that we must remain ever vigilant, lest old atrocities are compounded by fresh insults concealed beneath a cloak of “enlightenment.”