I first took my family to see Klimt‘s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, at the Neue Galerie in New York, three or four years ago, and have since returned again. My son saw it a third time last month, although he was, admittedly, more taken with the Egon Schiele exhibit we viewed there last year. Both artists flowered during the Austrian Secession, those lovely years (for artists, at least) preceding the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Klimt’s masterpiece was duly stolen by the Nazis, among whose many more unoriginal sins was appropriating great European art for themselves (even though they considered it all to be “decadent”!). The rescue of many of these works was delineated in the film The Monuments Men. However, many more works were, in the general chaos, grabbed by museums, under the guise of questionable wishes in wills.
The film opens in sunny L.A., and young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, doing his best work yet), suffering from a failed attempt at starting his own firm, is interviewing at a high-powered firm which is presided over by the always magnificent and majestic Charles Dance (Imitation Game, Jewel in the Crown, Game of Thrones [as Tywin Lannister]). Simultaneously, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, effortlessly displaying old-world charm and elegance), a friend of his mother (not by happenstance, as will be shown), is pestering him to help her. In the law-firm interview, Dance is magnanimous about Schoenberg’s own failure, and somehow seems more interested in discussing the young attorney’s grandfather, of all things, much to the younger man’s seeming bewilderment. Because, you see, that grandfather was the composer who singlehandedly changed classical music in the early twentieth century, namely Arnold Schoenberg. In Dance’s telling words, Schoenberg’s music is summed up, quite correctly, as difficult, but worth the effort (although, declaratively, not for all tastes). This is a key moment in the film, as it it begins to link the characters together, and to evoke the era into which Randy will descend, if reluctantly, like a caveman whose eyes are opened by splendors to which he was ignorant.
When Randy finally deigns to visit Maria, he finds her courtly, yet prickly and impatient with his thoroughly modern ways. Like everyone’s caricature of a lawyer, when he learns that Maria is the granddaughter of Adele Bloch-Bauer, and that she wants Klimt’s long-lost painting of Adele, the undertaking of which is nicely portrayed by flashbacks, Randy sees an opportunity to get ahead in the firm, by taking on the case. At this point, including his total lack of response to Dance’s comments about his grandfather, Randy seems the modern cipher, uninterested in anything but the banal. And, despite his slowly gestating friendship with, and devotion to Maria, he continues in this vein until what prove to be defining, and perhaps another word (more later), moments in his life.
In successive trials, the Austrian State Gallery’s representatives fight hard to keep the painting (which, by the way, is impressively massive, measuring 4 1/2 feet square, with pressed-on gold leaf abounding). After one especially dispiriting loss, Maria declares her wish to at least visit the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna on their way back to the airport, “so the trip won’t be a total loss.” Here is the first moment when the film really becomes as much about Randy’s character arc as about Maria’s quest. Randy, who again, up until this point, hasn’t been much more than a stolid go-getter lawyer, is visibly, and irretrievably, shaken, by his heretofore subsumed past (Arnold Schoenberg fled to Southern California, like other artists and friends, like the Altmanns, but other family members, being Jews, suffered the death-camp fate, like many of Maria’s relatives).
As we know, Maria and Randy eventually won the painting, which Maria soon sold to Ronald Lauder (for $135 million), for placement in his Neue Galerie. But the coda is perhaps the most beautiful moment in the film, when all the strands are pulled together, by another transcendent work of art. Maria and Randy attend the symphony, where Randy, collapsing in tears, is finally “transfigured” by his own grandfather’s work, Transfigured Night. – [DVD] [Blu-Ray]
DVD Release Date: 7/7/15