At first I thought it might be a case of Mother’s Day appeasement as all five of us trotted off to the movie theater to see an early showing of “Woman In Gold.” However, the emotions evoked by this well-done true historical drama of one woman’s journey to recover a treasured piece of family artwork stolen by the Nazis, proved otherwise. Weeks after seeing this impactful film, I still find myself reflecting on numerous scenes and empathizing with Maria Altmann (played by Helen Mirren), a Jewish woman from Vienna who was forced to leave her family, her friends, and her country and begin life anew with her young husband in an unfamiliar land called America. I have started over again in my life many times. It is not easy. It is not pleasurable. It is a lot of work, effort and perseverance. Somehow my own experiences now pale in comparison.
“Woman in Gold” changed me in some way. Shortly after seeing the film I thought to myself, “I might even wish to see it again in the near future.” This is the hallmark of a great movie to me. I am not easily entertained. For anyone that knows me, it is common knowledge that I am a critical movie reviewer and it takes the promise of an extraordinary film to even get my attention. It is a topic of amusement for my husband and kids. “Woman in Gold” has been the second movie in the last six months that piqued my interest. The first being “Unbroken” directed by Angelina Jolie. Sitting in the theatre for “Unbroken” is when I first saw the movie preview for “Woman In Gold.” Being a fan of the great Artist Gustav Klimt, who is the creator of this portrait that would later become known as “The Woman in Gold,” I knew immediately that I wanted to see this film. I did not know the story and I did not read any reviews prior to seeing this film and that turned out to be a good thing! After seeing the film I was curious what the critics were saying. The reviews I read baffled me! In each critique the commentary was incredibly unenthusiastic, including everything from the poor casting of Ryan Reynolds as Attorney Randy Schoenberg, the film being slow-in-parts, to the film being just a simplistic retelling of the true story. Really? That’s not the film I experienced!
So let’s address the mechanics for a moment and then get back to the personal take away of the film:
First point being the casting of Ryan Reynolds as Randy, a character referred to as a “school boy” at one point in the film, an understandable comment given his age and lack of experience. Reynolds plays this character well. It seems the expectation is Randy will be a Perry Mason – but he’s not. Randy is young, inexperienced and nervous as he appears in the US Supreme Court for the very first time. Randy is a bit bumbling in other scenes as well and at one point drops papers across the floor in front of the Austrian Review Committee. Why is Reynolds expected to play the character as something he is not? Would a different actor have changed Randy’s personality?
The second point is “that the film is slow-moving-in-parts.” I did not find this to be the case at all. Hmmm…succinctly and creatively communicating the emotions of a scene is key to great directing. The emotions of Maria and Randy include boredom and frustration as obstacles sprout up and the tedium of the legal process becomes wearying. However, communicating boredom doesn’t mean the story is boring. Humor was injected brilliantly throughout the film. Such lines as “Randy, can you drive faster? The chocolate on your donut is melting!” were wittily delivered by Mirren. Additionally, the use of flashbacks intertwined the past with the present in a clever and interesting way that kept the film moving and provided the necessary detail of the back story. There was a rise and fall to the film’s flow as intense scenes of the past gave way to the current day frustrating and tedious realities. The story was the story. Sometimes life is mundane and communicating these relevant details effectively to the audience can help them appreciate the events in process. No wonder Hollywood is pressured to embellish even the most interesting and entertaining true stories!
Lastly – “that the film is just a simplistic retelling of the true story.” Some of the most moving scenes included the Nazis forcing the Jews to scrub disparaging remarks from the streets on their knees, flashbacks to Maria’s earlier life unfolding her relationship with her aunt (literally the Woman in Gold) and the smashing ending as Maria tours the home of her youth as she envisions greeting all of her family members one-by-one. The clenching ending delivers as Maria’s striking Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer turns to face the audience with Klimt’s portrait behind her – it is simply breathtaking!
So all of the negative reviews make me question the criteria that many reviewers use today. Are we concerned merely with the mechanics of casting, directing and the formula of what constitutes a good movie? Or have we ignored perhaps the greatest consideration of all in understanding how the viewer’s heart and soul might be transformed by the film? Is the viewer moved or inspired to think and act differently? Has the viewer’s perspective been challenged is some way?
In the end, if a film sticks and causes you to rethink something, is that not part of what defines it as a success? A couple of my favorite lines from the movie were when Maria’s mother lovingly stated “Learn to be happy again Maria (…in America),” and “Keep the memories alive!” Perhaps these are things that are best understood and appreciated by a veteran of life. And so I wondered what my sons thought. One said “Never give up!” and the other “Sometimes it’s worth fighting for what’s right and getting justice.” So, our lives were enriched by “A Woman In Gold.” Is that not worth a 5-star rating?