Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany, Katie Holmes
(PG-13, 110 min.)
"Mills of the Gods, Grind exceedingly slow, But grind exceedingly fine..." ~Euripides (485-406 BC)
Don’t listen to the critics on this one, the ones who try to dismiss Woman in Gold as a somewhat boring lesson in art history. Perhaps the story of an elderly Jewish woman trying to retrieve a famous painting stolen by the Nazis isn’t edgy enough for them. Or maybe they just resent having to take time away from watching YouTube cat videos.
True, the film lacks the bold and bloody action of other Holocaust films, such as Defiance (Potato Babka Recipe), The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (German Potato Soup Recipe), Army of Shadows (French Onion Soup Recipe), Black Book (Dutch Fish with Edam Cheese Recipe) or The Counterfeiters (Beef Stroganoff Recipe) .
It is much more like the reflected portrait of Hitler’s flawed vision presented in Before the Fall (Baked Sauerkraut with Apples Recipe), with more subtle reminders of brutal practices and an understated context of atrocities.
We certainly do not at first notice any physical or emotional scars on the well-preserved and contained Maria Altman (Helen Mirren), an 82-year-old Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria. She even quips at her sister’s funeral that if life is a race to the end, her competitive sister has been the victor, and remarks at the roomful of boxes in her modest home that after years of invitations, only now, after her death has her sister decided to “move in with her.”
But something in those boxes brings back the old scars, the buried memories. It is a letter that mentions the famous Gustav Klimt painting, Woman in Gold, a painting of Maria’s aunt that was stolen from her family by the Nazis and now hangs in Vienna’s Belvedere Galerie. It is, in fact, the Austrian Mona Lisa, a national symbol. Even though Maria sees the portrait as legally hers, the rightful heir, prying it from Austria will be no easy task.
Or as one practical attorney advises, “Do you think that a painting that ends up as a fridge magnet, will ever leave Austria?”
Maria calls upon the son of a good friend to “give her some advice” about the painting. He is Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) the grandson of the famous Austrian composer. From their first prickly meeting, where Maria first chastises him for being 15 minutes late, ending with a regal dismissal where she apologizes for boring him all evening, we know this dismissal will not stand. It recalls the early tense cinema magic of Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn, John Wayne/Maureen O’Hara, or even the lighter banter of Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Of course, theirs is not a romantic relationship; it is more like the separate peace friendship that unites Judi Dench and a cynical journalist on another trans-Atlantic journey for overdue justice in 2013’s Philomena (Authentic Irish Coffee Recipe).
Together the reluctant attorney and the determined widow take on the Austrian government to right a 60-year-old injustice. On the surface, Maria is a nagging aunt, scolding and cajoling Randol along. When she is not rushing him forward, as in the drive to get to the airport 4 hours early:
But I want to buy perfume and cognac, and duty-free…
Can’t you drive a little faster. Look the chocolate on your donut is melting.
She is boosting his confidence:
This is like a James Bond film and you are Sean Connery.
But when Maria lets down the mask, we see her real purpose:
They destroyed my family. They killed my friends. And the forced me to abandon the people and places I love. I won’t let them humiliate me again.
She gazes into the distance and via flashbacks suddenly we are right there with her in Maria’s opulent family apartment in 1938 Vienna. We sit among the shining brocaded upholstery, the rich mahogany panels, where she watches her lovely aunt sit for her portrait, or when Maria remembers dancing at her own wedding. The young Maria is played by a vibrant Tatiana Maslany, who does not capture Mirren’s looks, but nails her spirit and passion. We also have a few heart-pounding moments when Maria and her new husband flee from house arrest.
Ryan Reynolds, contrary to what some critics say, is pitch perfect in his less than leading man role, false imperfect teeth and all. He flowers in the shade of Helen Mirren’s blazing perfection and begins to become what she needs. Not exactly a 007, but her knight in shining armor in terms of passion and persistence. When she is winded, he leads her on. When she loses faith, he finds his.
Don’t expect frills, thrills, or romance, just the wheels of justice turning exceedingly slow and grinding exceedingly fine. Not to miss for discriminating viewers.
When Maria Altmann first meets Randol Schoenberg, she serves a strudel. Of course, instead of just offering it to him, she has to add a little “guilt frosting,” insisting that she has baked it especially for him. Images of her slaving over a hot oven are supposed to be summoned just as was often the case with any of my equally persistent Italian aunts as prelude to tasting one of their creations.
Maybe that is why I have a particular nostalgic fondness for Helen Mirren’s Maria. She is able to evoke a complex mix of loveable vulnerability and mulish independence that keeps her poignant memories of war-torn Vienna from becoming maudlin.
Original recipe makes 6 servings
1 quart oil for deep frying
6 (6 ounce) fillets pork sirloin
1 cup cake flour
2 cups dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup milk
salt and pepper to taste
. Heat deep-fryer to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
. Place meat on a solid, level surface and pound with a mallet until it is 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.
. Place the flour and bread crumbs in separate dishes. Soup plates are useful. Lightly beat the eggs and add the milk. Lightly season with salt and pepper and put this into another soup plate.
Coat the meat in flour, patting lightly by hand. Using a fork to hold the meat, dip into the egg mixture and drain slightly. Next, coat with the breadcrumbs by lightly pressing the crumbs into the meat. When each piece of meat has been prepared, deep fry in cooking oil until golden brown.