In this flawed worlds of ours, justice is an often elusive outcome.
While we speak loftily of it, praising its many virtues and confirming its importance, it often falls foul of humanity’s propensity to entertain the lesser angels of its nature ahead of those of a more laudable nature.
Complicating matters still further in many cases is the murky admission of national self-interest to the mix.
That’s most certainly the case in a Woman in Gold, the sort of the late Maria Altmann, an elderly Austrian refugee now living in Los Angeles (Helen Mirren; Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria) who spent a decade in concert with her lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) seeking to recover ownership of five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen from her family in the lead up to World War Two.
Though on the surface an open and shut case of theft in a time of (almost) war, where grave injustices were perpetrated on a daily basis against Austria’s Jewish population with impunity, the return of the stolen paintings – one of which Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, is a gilt-laid rendering of Maria’s beloved aunt – became a heated trans-national issue, as much about the country’s willingness to admit its culpability in the atrocities of the Nazi era as the loss of national artistic treasures.
Though Maria, who wavered between fighting for justice from a country she felt had betrayed her and robbed her of so much – not the least of which was a sense of belonging in a city and with a family she adored – or simply letting the past stay the past, and Randy had their fair share of allies, including Austrian investigative journalist, Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), many other people believed the paintings should stay where they were, in the beautiful surrounds of Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery.
And thus was born a fight of titanic proportions between the past and the present – for Maria, who lived the loss of her parents who had to stay behind in Vienna while the rest of the family fled to safety every single day, the two were always one and the same – between justice and injustice, between those who wished that a traumatically dishonourable part of Austria’s history stay well and truly buried, and the passionate supporters of the idea that you can never make peace with who you are now unless you confront and deal with who you once were.
While Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis from a screenplay Alexi Kaye Campbell, doesn’t always grant this theme of justice against the odds the kind of evocative power it should and does naturally have, lagging ponderously at times and leaching the story of some of its dramatic power, it nevertheless still does a fine job of reminding us of the power of wrongs been righted to change not just the victim themselves but entire countries and societies.
For while Randy is initially reluctant to aid Maria’s quest to get her family’s paintings back, only agreeing when he realises that the recovery of the paintings will provide a significant financial and reputational boost to his struggling law career, he is soon deeply affected by the idea that his own family, led by noted composer Arnold Schoenberg, were affected by the same events that cost Maria so much.
As the film progresses, we witness the coming together of a moody, grieving Maria – her sister Luise’s recent death has once again revived the vivacity of painful ever-present memories – and a tireless Randy, who together win the right to take the Austrian government to the US Supreme Court before submitting to an arbitration process in Austria itself.
What saves the film from descending into another dry court procedural is the way it switches between the events of the present and Maria’s much-missed past, most poignantly in the film’s exquisitely well-wrought final scene.
Seeing her family in far happier times, celebrating weddings and enjoying precious time together in their luxuriously-appointed second floor apartment, and the way her extended family, which included her beloved Aunt Adele, was ripped apart as Austria changed out of all recognition around her, we are reminded at every turn of the great losses Maria, and many of her compatriots and friends, suffered at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime.
Perhaps the greatest loss though is the one Maria refers to time and again – that ability to be at peace with who you are, and more importantly where you are.
The importance of the paintings restitution to Maria has far to do with hopefully regaining some semblance of peace, some ease with the pain of the past but as she discovers towards the end of the film, justice can do many things but it cannot undo the events whose effects it seeks to ameliorate.
Woman in Gold, while not a perfect film which suffers from an inability to turn its source material into the riveting tale you might expect, devolving into soapie film-of-the-week territory when the story is powerful enough to stand on its two arrestingly intense narrative feet, is still deeply affecting on a number of levels.
Even if we haven’t suffered the kinds of losses that Maria and Randy’s families did, or experienced the trauma of our lives and families being ripped asunder, we can still identify with how horribly scarring it must be to lose any and all control over your own fate and have no way, at least at first and for many long years in most cases, of fighting back.
In that sense, the film carries well its universal message of the importance of having the events of the past atoned for in some way by present day actions, and of the imperative that none of us ever forget history’s crueller, more harrowing epochs, lest it repeat itself in ways too grievous to mention.
Justice well rendered is a vitally important, defining part of what makes us human, but surely it is far better for all concerned, most of all those like Maria Altmann, to have no need of it in the first place.