“People forget, especially the young.” These words, uttered by Maria Altmann (Dame Helen Mirren) in the Holocaust-inspired film “Woman in Gold,” perfectly encapsulate the film’s central motifs of memory and history, commenting on the fact that the horrors of the Holocaust are gradually receding into the depths of the collective memory of the younger generations.

Is it ever too late to try to fix the past? The question arises again and again throughout the film as various characters and institutions question the foolhardiness of a quest to reclaim the national treasure of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” or “Woman in Gold” —called Austria’s “Mona Lisa”back into the family who used to own it. The main protagonists, Jewish-Austrian emigre Maria Altmann and her lawyer and pseudo-nephew Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), not only have to field this question several times, but they also privately question themselves on the ultimate meaning of their mission. Whether it be for monetary gain (the titular Klimt painting is valued at well over a hundred million dollars), the righting of historical injustice or simply a wish to restore lost property, the acquisition of “Woman in Gold represents a gamut of emotions and memories for the people involved in its past, present and future.

Simon Curtis’ latest film is yet another addition to the genre of Holocaust films. However, it approaches its subject matter from a different angle — from the present peering into the past and looking to right its wrongs. Rather than employing a chronological, historical narrative structure to propel its story forward, the film plays fast and loose with our knowledge of the events of the Holocaust, from the rounding up of the Jews to the looting of precious art by the Nazis. By using this historical knowledge as a flexible foundation, “Woman in Gold” hones in on the slow and arduous process of art restoration and the realisation that the ripple effects of history are still felt half a century later across time and space.

It is impossible to view the film as merely a story about reclaiming lost art. On a deeper level, it challenges the viewers to reconsider their ideas on historical injustice and cultural memory. Kinship is emphasized strongly throughout the film, tying into the idea that it is more than shared history and blood that bind us together. From the heartrending scenes of the idyllic childhood of young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) to the inevitable separation she suffers from her family to the present day when Randy is constantly reminded of his Austrian roots through his grandfather, the renowned composer Arnold Schoenberg, the characters’ attempts to first escape their pasts, then embrace them, shape the overall arc of the film.

That being said, for all its praiseworthy efforts to tackle the Holocaust from a more original perspective, “Woman in Gold” is at best, an adequate effort. From the choppy editing between cuts to the jarring changes in the colour saturation of the scenes, the film continuously struggles to tell its story while being constrained by its own technical inconsistency. In short, despite various promising aspects — the inspired casting of Dame Helen Mirren as Maria, the flashback subplot — the film is more often than not bogged down by extraneous characters and a failure to incisively cut to the heart of its message. Trim away all the fat, such as the contrived emotional subplot between Randy and his wife Pam (Katie Holmes), and “Woman in Gold” might make a leaner, better film.

The determination of the film to divide its characters into a Manichean morality play between the good guys (Maria and Randy) and the bad guys (the present-day Austrian government) somewhat ironically detracts from its examination of history and memory. By portraying only one side of the story — Maria’s family’s art was confiscated by the Nazis then wrongfully held by the government for over half a century — the film ignores the subtleties in the motivations behind the Austrian government to retain its national treasures, embedded in the Austrian psyche as they are.

Another poorly-executed character is that of Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Bruhl), the Austrian investigative journalist who helps Maria and Randy navigate the Austrian bureaucracy. “What’s in it for you?” Randy asks him, but the answer is never really dealt with until the end when Hubertus reveals that his father was a Nazi. Thus, his act of helping Maria served as penance for the sins of his father. However, given the abruptness of the revelation and the lack of emotional build-up prior, the scene falls flat.

Hence, despite possessing potential to tell a truly moving and necessary story for its contemporary audience, “Woman in Gold” gives off the impression of a film filling in a color-by-numbers. Neither the courtroom drama nor the historical Holocaust film genre is adequately represented because the filmmakers rely too much on the viewers’ familiarity with both and make the barest attempts to tell a story transcending these genres, instead choosing to adhere to predictable genre tropes.

The denouement of the film and its descent into saccharine sentiment, when young Maria bids goodbye to her parents as she prepares to flee Austria without them, leaves a slightly uncomfortable, too-sweet aftertaste. Indeed, between ham-fisted nods to its subject matter and lines such as “Let me speak to you in the language of your future” to highlight the switch from German to English, it’s remarkable that the film managed to treat the sensitivities of the Holocaust as well as it does.

Ultimately, while “Woman in Gold” might not be a good film from a filmmaking perspective or from that of an audience looking to be entertained, it is nevertheless an important one. It might be overly didactic in its pronouncements of the past being forgotten, but that does not make its statements any less true. What makes it even more amazing is that it is based on a true story. Thus, consider giving it a watch, if only to ponder the inspiring journey undertaken by one woman to reclaim her past for the sake of the present and future.


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