I like unpopular movies. “Woman in Gold” kept me deeply interested despite, or because of, its negative reviews. Helen Mirren did a superb job of portraying inner turmoil. The camera gave the viewer plenty to think about, not just to gawk at. There wasn’t a wasted word or glimpse – either at Los Angeles or at the museums, mansions and airports of Austria. There was nothing amiss in this remarkable tale rendered almost silently, with the ironic images and the tiniest little humorous lines that packed a lot of information and implication with every syllable.
Yes, this was a motion picture, and it resisted easy “action” in favor of mood and meaning. What IS a painting, or a portrait? The theft of art belonging to the Jews of Vienna was the stripping away of the authenticity of a treasure, its claim and its hidden truths. The “woman in gold” stood for the fragile success of the Jewish rise to a degree of security and poise in a sophisticated city to which they contributed, culturally and socially. The “Mona Lisa” of Vienna lost her identity and her context until the niece of the golden girl reclaims it and herself as well, as an American, rescued and redeemed. It is a fascinating commentary, poetic and philosophical, about how to look at an object in a gallery or museum, thoughtfully and knowledgeably, and honorably.
In the role of Maria Altman, the star looks at an old photograph and “hallucinates” their youthful lives: the camera metaphorically has to project her musings visually, not verbally. While the actors must say this or that, their faces, costumes and surroundings do the explaining, not their speeches.
If the critics missed the point, at least they should not agree so universally in their condemnation. The purpose of movie criticism is not to entice or repel the potential audience but to give us all something to say about it, like a Frenchman after sipping a glass of wine!
Mike Fink (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at RISD.