Friday, April 24, 2015

Woman in Gold Review

I do enjoy viewing art museums, though my articulation of art criticism outside of film is somewhat limited to something akin to, "Now that is an aesthetically pleasing... whatever that is." When I see good art, I can recognize it as good art. The artist Gustav Klimt's iconic painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" is what initially caught my attention in the trailer for Woman in Gold (2015); it's a beautiful painting that used real gold and silver foils to create a beautiful paining. On top of that, seeing two mismatched actors together on screen was also intriguing. Finally, some World War II history was involved and it sent me over the edge; I had to see it. While it is a good movie, it's not as deep or profound as it thinks it is.
Sixty years after she fled Vienna during World War II, an elderly Jewish woman, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt's famous painting 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I'. Together with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she embarks upon a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past along the way. Maria does this not just to regain what was rightfully hers, but also to obtain some measure of justice for the death, destruction, and massive art theft perpetrated by the Nazis.
I was privileged in college to study World War II history coupled with psychology, culminating in travels to Munich, Germany to see historic sites firsthand. It is one of the greatest experiences I've had in academia. The combination of these two disciplines was positively fascinating and ever since, I have been engrossed by that time period. World War II dramas tend to resonate with me. Woman in Gold was particularly interesting, because it explored how the actions of the Nazis of the day have an effect on the present, even when well over half a century has passed. Nazi Austria is only visited briefly in flashbacks throughout the film as Maria reflects on memories. The movie shows how history is still very much alive and continues to influence us today. The past isn't just stories, it is our personal history, our family history, our heritage, and the long standing narrative that defines who we are now.
Woman in Gold tries to portray this idea of returning to our roots and preserving our histories, but seems somewhat lacking in its ability to do so. Initially, Randy is helping Maria for the money and prestige that the lawsuit would grant him; but he eventually he sees how it's not just Maria's history they are fighting for, but his as well, and he gains new conviction as the case becomes more relevant to him. How this is portrayed is that Maria and Randy visit the Austrian Holocaust memorial, and Randy excuses himself and cries in the privacy of a public restroom with no prior indication of interest. This could have been a deeply dramatic scene, but we're not shown why this change of heart happened so much as we were shown that it did happen. It causes this turning point to seem like a convenient plot development. This is just one example of some dramatic action being over simplified and weakened. It was well acted, no doubt, but without establishing enough context so many of the scenes felt lacking.
Helen Mirren is a beautiful and regal actress who often plays very dramatic roles. She has played three British queens in different films and television series, and she fits the role of nobility with remarkable astuteness. I particularly liked her in Hitchcock and The Hundred-Foot Journey. Ryan Reynolds is frequently typecast as an arrogant, handsome, cocky, and rude young man. And he plays that role very well. He's essentially the same character in Just Friends, Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Waiting. While I hate to oversimplify his career, I think this is one of the only times he's taken on a dramatic role. He does a pretty good job of it and emotes remarkably well. In one scene, he loses his patience and is downright intimidating as he vents his anger and frustration. There are moments when his characteristic humor shines through, but overall he does quite well in a dramatic role. These two mismatched actors bounce off of one another beautifully; their character's contrasting views and personalities make for some great scenes between the two. It's an odd coupling of actors, but they do a splendid job together.
Woman in Gold was not a bad movie, but wasn't as deep as it seems to think it is. It is at its core the true story about legal proceedings meant to resolve ownership of a painting. While that is an interesting story, frankly there isn't a whole lot of actual story to tell with that. Fortunately it is more character and theme driven than story driven, and the characters and theme are excellent. I'd never have imagined seeing Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds acting opposite each other, but here they are. Woman in Gold benefits greatly from the talented leads, but their strong work doesn't manage to overshadow the fact that there isn't a whole lot actually going on otherwise. It expresses the idea of getting in touch with our heritage and preserving our histories, but it doesn't do a whole lot outside of that. I like the movie overall and I recommend seeing it once it hits home video, but I don't think it's quite worth going out of my way to see a second time.

Can you think of another great movie that urges you to get in touch with your family history and heritage? Comment below and let me know!

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