Review by John Campbell
Movies can speak to you on different levels. Driving home after watching this, I heard our horrible prime minister say ‘nope, nope, nope’ when asked would Australia help resettle any of the Rohingyas stranded at sea. Will Australia one day be held to account for its inhumanity in the same way that Austria has been for its treatment of Jews?, I wondered. The link was inescapable… And then there is Gustav Klimt’s magnificent painting, of ‘the woman in gold’. I’d only ever seen it reproduced in books, but the opening shot, a recreated close-up of gold-leaf being applied to the canvas, and later visual studies of it, made me swoon with its gilded beauty. The history surrounding the masterpiece is intriguing and told with only a small degree of forgivable bias in Simon Curtis’s telling of it.
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a California shop-owner, fled Vienna in 1938 shortly after the Anschluss. Left behind in the family home was Klimt’s portrait of the aunt Adele whom Maria doted on. Fifty years later, with the government of Austria embarking on a policy of reparation, she undertook the challenge of retrieving the painting. Assisting her was lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), himself a descendant of Austrian refugees. Curtis’s flashbacks to the grand capital of the Hapsburgs is as gloriously evocative as is the dark shadow that engulfed it alarmingly familiar – Maria and her husband’s flight from the jackboots is charged with a terror that none of us would wish to experience. As always, Mirren is wonderful as the feisty old lady who is eventually worn down by the obfuscation of officialdom, only to have her baton carried on by Randol, representing a member of a later generation whose conscience has been pricked after being exposed to the tragedy of the past. ‘People forget,’ Maria says, and to me that is what this enlightening and moving film is all about; not who is entitled to own a picture, but how forgetfulness can encourage the hatefulness of ‘nope, nope, nope’.