As advertised, Helen Mirren does an excellent job as Maria Altmann, the woman whose aunt is portrayed in the eponymous painting. The story revolves around Ms Altmann's efforts to recover the painting, which was stolen from her family by the Nazis. She's opposed by the Austrian government for whom the Klimt painting and its companions have become national symbols and for whom the concept of "reparations" was mostly an abstract concept hearkening back to a past that late-20th-century Austrians would like to put behind them.
Against Mirren's performance Ryan Reynolds comes off as scene-chewing and kind of spastic. He's trying hard and I can see how he can mature into a better actor with experience and work but dear gods he really highlights what a master of the craft Mirren is. She conveys a wide range of emotions with her expressions, intonations, and simple gestures But to Reynolds' credit he sticks with it and pulls it off.
Spoilers and triggers...
I had expected this movie to focus on the multi-year and many-layered fight to get the paintings back. The case went to SCOTUS, among other things, and there really were no easy steps along the way. It does that, and despite some really glaring inaccuracies it does a pretty good job at it. What caught me by surprise was the detailed exploration of Altmann's pre-war life and traumatic experiences at the hands of the Nazis.
For Altmann, as for so many survivors, the simple decision to return to Austria is incredibly emotionally fraught and the film shows us in detail just why. We relive Altmann's interactions with her aunt from the portrait, her forced parting from her family after the Nazis occupy Austria, and the drama of the flight itself. I was not prepared for that and it hit particularly hard.
I am fortunate that my family got out of Europe well before these events - I'm 3rd and 4th generation born on mother's/father's side. But every time I tell the story of my last name it's a story about what happened there. I'm married to sweetmmeblue who is a child of survivors and I've known many Jews in my life who simply won't discuss what happened, nor are ever able to admit that there might be some good in German or Germany.
Today we have language of trauma and PTS/PTSD to formalize some of these things and help us understand it. When I was growing up I just knew that there were friends of our family who always slept with the lights on. There were people I could never talk about the reunification of Germany with. Looking backward through the decades now I can see the signs that our current understanding of trauma teaches us to watch for. Mirren's Altmann is not per se traumatized in that way but the film gives you a full-bore view of events that would traumatize anyone, and it caught me by surprise.
It's a good movie to watch, if you're prepared for it. Me, I had to walk for nearly an hour afterward to shake it off.