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Helen Mirren shines as Maria Altmann in ‘Woman in Gold’

But the film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival this week, may struggle to find the wide appeal it aims for with audiences

Ryan Reynolds and Helen Mirren star in "Woman in Gold"

“Woman in Gold”, the cinematic telling of the recovery of Gustav Klimt’s 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is styled in the mainstream naturalism that was once the stuff of American TV movies. Yet Helen Mirren plays the recently deceased Maria Altmann (1916-2011), niece of Adele, with a verve that lifts the film above the boilerplate commercial docu-drama. Ryan Reynolds, as E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann’s lawyer, helps make her legal battle watchable.

Directed by Simon Curtis (best know for his 2011 film “My Week with Marilyn”) with a screenplay by the playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, “Woman in Gold” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival Monday night.

The film unfolds through two historical narratives, shifting from the 1930s to the recent past. Curtis presents the comfortable life of the Bloch-Bauer family, a Jewish clan that made a fortune in sugar beets and other businesses in Vienna. Adele (1881-1924) hosts a chic salon where Klimt and other artists met their patrons, and is shown to have had an intimate bond with the painter. As Gustav Klimt, the German actor Moritz Bleibtreu is comical, and scenes of the Bloch-Bauer family celebrating folksy Jewish culture fall into the category of historical kitsch.

We see Maria as a girl and a young woman in the 1930s, and catch up to her in the 1990s in Los Angeles, where she settled after fleeing the Nazis. A friend of the Schoenberg family (the lawyer is the composer Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson), she hires Randol to get her pictures back.

Historical films aimed at a broader audience tend to sacrifice facts for character flourishes, but “Woman in Gold” rather faithfully follows Altmann and Schoenberg’s case—initially seen as a long shot at best—through the courts.

Encouraged by a restitution law that the Austrian parliament passed unanimously in 1998, Schoenberg sues for the return of five pictures in the Belvedere Gallery, only to be hit with a demand for almost $2 million in escrow, which leads him to abandon the suit in Austria. In the US, Schoenberg finds a way to claim the pictures, citing the sale of Belvedere merchandise in America. The film even recognises the work of Hubertus Czernin, a journalist and notorious gadfly played by Daniel Bruhl, who traced thousands of Nazi-looted works of art to Austrian national museums. Altmann wins her pictures back, eventually, and Adele I is bought by Ronald Lauder for the then-record sum of $135 million

The film's concentration, however, remains on Altmann's personal story. The Austrian reaction to her claim may seem extreme, yet it was no less vehement in real life. And the film never veers from its central point—that the Bloch-Bauer art collection was looted by Nazi authorities in Vienna, and that Austria fought aggressively to avoid returning it, eventually losing works that were viewed post-war as national treasures.

“Woman in Gold” opens this spring in the US, a year after “The Monuments Men”, another mainstream movie on Second World War art history with a high-profile Hollywood cast, failed to impress critics in Europe and America following its Berlin Film Festival premiere. The reactions to "Woman in Gold" have been mixed, more positive in Europe than from US and British media, yet the real constituency for this melodrama about the largest art restitution in modern history is not film critics.

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