Sometimes we go to see a movie or read a book, and we are surprised. Something about the story engages us, sticks with us, catches us in its web and alters our perceptions. Of course this is what a good story does. Stories play out all around us every day; everyone has a story. But often we are too busy with our own internal lists and goals, our own stories, to notice other stories. Sometimes, to escape our own stories for a little while, we go to a movie or read a book, and our worries are temporarily pushed aside. But the respite is short-lived; we return to our lives entertained but unchanged.
Until we are surprised.
I was surprised by the film Woman in Gold. I was not surprised that I enjoyed the film. It came well recommended; it sounded like a film I would enjoy. The story was expected, and yet, at the same time, completely unexpected. I knew it was a film about art restitution, and so it was. But it is also a film about so much more. By taking a grand public issue and making it personal, by compressing a large idea into an intimate tale of family, loss, history, and memory, director Simon Curtis has made a film that is not only about restitution but about reconciliation.
Helen Mirren's luminous portrayal of Maria Altman captured my heart from her first words. She seems to have gathered together, and understood deeply, the reserve, the wry wit, the ways of thinking, acting and speaking, the complexities even, of my late mother-in law's generation of once upper-middle class to affluent Austrian Jewish refugees. Although she did not remind me of any one person, her characterization is so spot-on, so true to my experience, that almost every phrase, every expression and action flooded my mind with memories of women I have known, women now gone. Throughout the movie my heart was going "Yes. Yes. This."
I also felt Ryan Reynolds was well-chosen to play Randy Schoenberg. I am aware that reviews of his performance have not always been positive. But to me his all-American affability was the perfect counterpoint to Mirren's complexities. His light hand in his portrayal of Randy Schoenberg helped to keep the film from being overwrought, from being emotionally toxic.
But the truth is, in my experience Reynolds's characterization is also spot-on. I know these men, children who were deliberately protected from the pain of the memory; children who were encouraged to be as American, as lighthearted and unencumbered as their grandparents were not. I know them. And Reynolds's character held many direct associations for me. I would think "this is X", or "yes, this is Y" and I would love them. I could see their interactions with their own families, sometimes the interactions in my own extended family, in the exchanges between Mirren and Reynolds. The choice of these actors, the portrayal of these characters shows us something about the dynamics of family, of history and starting over, of the sharing of memory within families, that may otherwise be lost with time.
Woman in Gold is a film of stories within stories, stories that will stay with you if you let them in. It is some of the quiet moments that echo the most deeply, the moments that could be missed that stay with me. In particular, this exchange between Maria and Randy, and exchange that occurs immediately following a moment of triumph, continues to make waves in my heart: "My mistake was in thinking this would make everything better. But it does not. I left them here. I left them."
Do not worry. The film does not end on that sad note. As I stated earlier, this film is about more than art restitution. It is about memory and reconciliation. But for that, you will have to watch the film yourself.