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Viewer Guide “Woman in Gold” and “Away from Her”

April 8, 2022 | Richard Peña


Woman in Gold (2015).

Tonight’s double feature begins with Woman in Gold, the 2015 biographical drama directed by Simon Curtis.  

The “woman in gold” referred to in the title is Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a painting that became known as “Austria’s Mona Lisa.” However, the history behind the painting’s iconic status involves one of the most high-profile cases of World War II Nazi art theft. Opening in 1998, the film stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, now widowed and living in Los Angeles. After her older sister’s death, Maria inherits old correspondence regarding the family’s museum-class art collection, which included the commissioned Klimt portrait of her aunt. Through a family friend, Maria seeks the help of a lawyer named Randy Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, to review the letters and determine if there’s any possibility of reclaiming the paintings. The grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, Randy has Austrian roots as well, but with a baby on the way and a new law firm job, he initially regards Maria’s request as a nuisance. Yet after looking into the situation—and learning the astronomical value of the Klimt portrait—Randy begins to think Maria just might have a case with Austria’s changing art restitution laws. Sharing the good news that he’s received permission to go to Vienna, Randy is puzzled by Maria’s resistance in joining him for the trip. Faced with the unexpected prospect of finally reclaiming the art works stolen from her family, Maria must now confront the traumatic memories of her terrible final days in Vienna during the city’s Nazi takeover. 

Also featured are Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria Altmann, Max Irons as her husband Fritz, Katie Holmes as Jerry’s wife, Daniel Brühl as a crusading journalist, and Charles Dance as Randy’s new boss, with cameo appearances by Jonathan Pryce and Elizabeth McGovern. 

While Maria Altmann’s quest to reclaim her family’s extraordinary art collection became a high-profile triumph, sadly, most privately owned art works looted by the Nazis remain missing. Woman in Gold does take some dramatic license with its account of Altmann’s story. Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin—played by Daniel Brühl in the film—wrote a book about the Bloch-Bauer paintings that prompted Maria Altmann to begin her inquiries with the Austrian government. Czernin died of a rare cellular disorder at the untimely age of 50 in 2006, just prior to Altmann’s sale of Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” to Ronald Lauder for $135 million. Oprah Winfrey purchased Klimt’s other portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer for $88 million. Prior to Maria Altmann’s death in 2011, she reportedly distributed most of the money from the paintings’ sales to family members and charities. If you haven’t seen Klimt’s “woman in gold” for yourself, by all means stop by the Neue Galerie at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street to experience its hypnotic power firsthand. 


Away from Her (2006).

This week’s double feature continues with Away from Her, a 2006 drama written and directed by Sarah Polley. 

Adapted from the Alice Munro short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” Away from Her stars the ever-luminous Julie Christie as Fiona Anderson, a woman in her mid-60s who is seemingly enjoying a comfortable retirement in rural Ontario with her husband Grant, a former university professor played by Gordon Pinsent. Yet despite their happy days together, some unsettling clouds darken their skies as Fiona begins to exhibit symptoms of advancing Alzheimer’s disease. Finally forced to confront the inevitable, Fiona and Grant mutually decide that the time has arrived for her to move into a memory care facility where she can receive the support she will need as her condition continues to deteriorate. After Fiona moves in, Grant endures the facility’s required 30-day initial separation period, but upon making his first visit to Fiona he’s astonished to discover that she that has become romantically attached to a mute, wheelchair-bound resident named Aubrey, played by Michael Murphy. Shock transforms into helplessness, as Grant can only look on from the sidelines as Fiona’s new relationship deepens. Eventually, he seeks out Aubrey’s wife Marian, played by Olympia Dukakis, and struggles to find a path forward as Fiona drifts further away from him in a way he never expected. 

Also featured in supporting roles are Wendy Crewson as the facility’s crisp chief administrator, and Kristen Thomson as a caregiver with some tough wisdom to dispense. 

Away from Her director Sarah Polley began her career as a child actor, with numerous early credits including the popular series Avonlea. Going on to direct short films while continuing her adult acting career, Polley read Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” while filming the supernatural drama No Such Thing in 2000. Deeply moved by the story, Polley pursued adapting it as her feature film directing debut, and became convinced it offered a perfect role for her No Such Thing co-star Julie Christie. Christie had been a top star of the 60s, with memorable performances in Billy Liar, Darling and of course Doctor Zhivago, yet by the early 2000’s she had entered semi-retirement. Luring Christie out of it required a long period of persuasion; but finally, Christie agreed, based on the strength of her trust in Polley. Premiering at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, Away from Her won critical raves and a host of honors for Christie’s performance, including a win for the year’s Screen Actors Guild Best Actress award, as well as her fourth Oscar nomination.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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