Gustav Klimt may have been celebrated for his gilded portraits of elegant Austrian ladies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the same approach suits “Woman in Gold,” director Simon Curtis’ garish “good taste” account of how a determined Jewish exile (played by Helen Mirren) sought the restitution of a Klimt painting seized by the Nazis. Weinsteined to within an inch of its life, this compelling true story forbids any room for perfectly reasonable arthouse audiences to question Maria Altmann’s case, striking back at the anti-Semitism of the time with an equally noxious caricature of modern Austrians as law-bending, art-thieving monsters.
In other words, “My Week With Marilyn” director Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell (a theater talent making his bigscreen debut) have taken the position that there’s no room for debate where rectifying the wrongs of Austria’s past is concerned, which makes for a reasonably dull ride, as both director and scribe take a fairly predictable paint-by-numbers approach to the subject of fine art — a category for which the film itself could scarcely be mistaken. This is manufactured sentiment, less interested in provoking thought than in manipulating emotion, constructed of human obstacles overcome, stirring speeches delivered and heart-rending flashbacks unveiled, all suspended like so much Spam in the jelly of its own score — so much heavy-handed strings-and-pianos business from Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer, plastered on more liberally than the gold leaf applied by Klimt himself.
Ah, Klimt. The artist makes a distractingly corny cameo early on (played by popular German actor Moritz Bleibtreu), in which he caresses his model, Adele Block-Bauer (Antje Traue), as she sits for her famous portrait. He will resurface at the end to smile approvingly upon the outcome of Altmann’s case, despite the fact that the Austrian government had effectively honored the wording of Adele’s will, proudly displaying “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” for some 60 years in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace.
But — and this is no small thing — the painting was not Adele’s to give. It was commissioned and paid for by her industrialist husband (renowned Jewish stage actor Henry Goodman), confiscated by German authorities under false pretenses and acquired eight years later, in 1941, by Belvedere curator Bruno Grimschitz — one of the movie’s many bureaucratic supervillains, whose unfortunate-sounding moniker Campbell exploits for a cheap laugh. (Nearly all the jokes amount to schoolyard-quality jibes.) Obviously, not all Austrians are as evil as the film would have audiences believe, but Grimschitz was a heel: He knew the artwork’s provenance, scrubbed its Jewishness and rechristened the painting “Golden Portrait” (later “The Lady in Gold”).
More than half a century later, now living in Los Angeles and played by a lightly accented and eccentrically fussy Mirren, Altmann sets out to reclaim what was rightfully hers, though the odds are against her: Though Austria has publicly stated it intends to return stolen artworks to their rightful owners, this particular piece has since become the country’s Mona Lisa. “Do you think that a painting that ends up as a fridge magnet will ever leave Austria?” asks the wonderfully stern Charles Dance, evidently on loan from “The Imitation Game” (he’s just one of many distinguished thesps doing day-player duty in the film, including Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce as federal judges, respectively).
Working family connections to find a lawyer, Altmann enlists nervous “schoolboy” Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, shockingly miscast), the grandson of Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg, whose music was deemed “degenerate” by the Nazi culture police (but, if sparingly applied, might have made a more fitting score than the one slathered thickly over every scene). With a pregnant wife (Katie Holmes) at home, the young Schoenberg is far out of his depth handling a case such as this, for which there is very limited precedent, and though Campbell’s screenplay attempts to convey the finer legal points raised by Altmann’s claim, the film is ultimately more interested in some higher sense of justice.
One dimension of that justice involves the film’s right to re-create, in painfully melodramatic terms, the mistreatment of Jews by their Austrian countrymen in the early ’30s. In stark contrast with the hyper-saturated contemporary footage (unusually bright for typically gothic d.p. Ross Emery), Curtis depicts festive rallies in which the Viennese people enthusiastically welcomed their Nazi occupiers. He shows Jewish families forced to scrub sidewalks and kneel quietly while rowdy onlookers cheered their humiliation.
Seeing as how the national attitude was permitted to unfairly denigrate an entire race at the time, the film returns the favor, presenting all Austrians as cardboard villains — cruel, greedy and staunchly unhelpful — with just two exceptions: Profil magazine editor Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl), who assists Altmann in the present, and a kindly washerwoman who helped her to escape a fleeing Nazi officer (rising star Tom Schilling) so many years ago. The film makes it a point to dramatize this cruelty in German, presenting English as Altmann’s liberated language, going so far as to transition between the two in a choked-up scene between the young Maria (“Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany) and her father (Alain Corduner).
Nuance is nowhere to be found in Curtis’ strong-arm approach, and though a certain audience won’t object to being forced how to feel, there’s a monumental issue at stake here that the film scarcely acknowledges: Does (or should) anyone really own art? At a moment when the music and movie industries have all but lost control of their own product and the public feels more entitled than ever to access such media for free, what does it mean for the world’s most valuable paintings to remain in private hands? (The prickly subject served as the backbone of the 2006 docu “The Rape of Europa,” but is hardly limited to Nazi activity, affecting everything from looted antiquities in the Getty collection to the return of Prague’s Lobkowicz Palace after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic.)
After winning her case, Altmann removed the Bloch-Bauer portrait from the Belvedere Palace and sold it to Ronald Lauder (ghoulishly portrayed in a short scene here) for the record sum of $135 million. Now, like Altmann herself, the Austrian masterpiece was sent to live abroad. The film goes out of its way to stress that her fight was not about the money. It would be nice to buy a new washer machine, she admits at one point. As for the filmmakers, they’re doing it to see the looks on the faces of all those nasty Austrians. Picture a screengrab of that moment, displayed in the Belvedere where “The Lady in Gold” once hung. Priceless.