Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language
Brief strong language including anti-Semitic epithets
WWII-era peril and violence
A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters:
April 1, 2015
Date Released to DVD:
July 6, 2015
The very title is a form of theft. When Gustav Klimt painted the portrait that gives this film its name, he called it “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” She was a warm, vibrant young woman who was a vital part of the extraordinary period of intellectual and cultural life in Vienna known as the Sacred Spring era. Adele Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, and the portrait hung in a place of honor in the apartment her husband shared with his brother, sister-in-law, and two young nieces.
And then the Nazis invaded Germany, their atrocities included stealing the valuables of the Jews they were sending to concentration camps. They took the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and hung it in a place of honor, after they renamed it to remove identity of the subject and the Jewish association of her name. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” became the anonymous “The Woman in Gold.” The beautiful choker necklace she wore in the painting was also stolen and given to the wife of Nazi officer Hermann Goering.
More than half a century later, Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, asked the grandson of her old friend from Vienna if he could help her get the painting back. This film is the story of the painting, the lawsuit, and Maria’s indomitable spirit.
Dame Helen Mirren is radiant as Maria, witty, spirited, an irresistible force who cannot give up. While we never doubt for a moment that she will prevail, Mirren makes us want to watch it all unfold. It is an extremely difficult case, with many arcane legal details, and the real-life story, like all real-life stories, is more complicated and controversial than any movie can convey. Director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”) and first-time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell keep the focus on the odd-couple relationship between Maria and the young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds), with flashbacks to show us Maria’s relationship with her Aunt Adele, and then her wedding to a handsome opera singer, just as the Germans are about to invade. Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) is lovely as the young Maria, and makes us believe she could grow up to become Helen Mirren.
The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer now hangs in the Neue Galerie. And now this movie is a part of its story, putting Adele back into the picture and giving us a portrait of the niece who insisted that her story be told.
Parents should know that this film includes WWII-era peril and violence, with references to concentration camps and genocide. There is brief strong language including anti-Semitic epithets.
Family discussion: Why did Maria refuse Ronald Lauder’s offer to get her more experienced lawyers? What was the most important discovery in winning the case?
Writer-director Mike Binder sure likes to get Kevin Costner drunk. As in his uneven but impressive “The Upside of Anger,” Binder once again has Costner playing a man who is a little lost and usually shnockered, a role well suited for Costner’s loose-limbed, naturalist wryness. Binder’s strengths are evident here. He creates complex, unhappy characters who are articulate without being artificially quippy. He casts superb actors and gets outstanding performances (“The Upside of Anger,” flawed as it was, is worth seeing just to watch Joan Allen work through so many variations on ferocity, loss, and doubt). And in this film, he takes a highly charged situation that could easily be overly melodramatic, formulaic, or polemical and gives it nuance and dignity. No matter what your inclination on the custody dispute over a biracial child at the center of the film, you will rethink it.
Costner plays Elliot, a lawyer who learns in the first moments of the film that his wife Carol (Jennifer Ehle) has been killed in a car accident. She has had most of the responsibility of caring for their granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), who has lived with them since she was born, because her mother, then just 17 years old, died in childbirth.
Elliot is so overwhelmed by loss that the next morning he takes Eloise to school without telling her what happened. He has no idea of what the morning routine is, how to fix Eloise’s hair, or even where exactly the school is located.
That afternoon, with some bolstering of his courage via alcohol and his law partner, Elliot finally tells Eloise that her grandmother has died. He is committed to continuing to care for her. But her other grandmother, Rowena (a terrific Octavia Spencer) wants to have a bigger role in Eloise’s life. She files for joint custody. Her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a successful litigator, tells her that if she wants to succeed, she will have to have a more powerful argument than her rights as the child’s grandmother. She will have to claim that Elliot is not a suitable guardian for a black child. “Do you want what is best for the child?” asked Jeremiah. “Then has a problem with black people.” Elliot’s counsel urges him to be aggressive. “Are you okay getting ugly?”
Rowena and Elliot respect, even have some affection for one another. Each knows the other is far more than the extremes alleged in the court filings. But the system is not set up for anything but extremes. Jeremiah is successful in getting the case before a black woman judge (the excellent Paula Newsome), and both sides think she will be inclined to give Eloise to her black relatives.
But both sides are vulnerable, and, as the judge has warned them, once a child is in the system it is within her power to decide that neither grandparent should have custody. Elliot and Rowena both understand that the litigation will bring them to the brink of mutually assured destruction. But things heat up. Rowena brings in her son Reggie (André Holland), Eloise’s father and amends the suit to call for full custody, saying Elliot is not fit to raise Eloise because he drinks. While his legal claim is stronger on paper because he is her parent, his claim is also weaker because he has a record of drug use and criminal behavior and has never cared for or even spent time with his daughter. We see the contrast between Elliot’s big, luxurious, but empty house and Rowena’s crowded, chaotic, but loving home. Elliot is white and male. Can he understand Eloise? Both of Eloise’s grandparents are still struggling with their failures as parents the first time around as well.
Binder continues to be better with the small moments than the big ones, and there are affecting one-on-one moments with Reggie and his mother and uncle, and with Elliot and Rowena. But he still has trouble with finding a good way to end a story, and he has no idea of how to write for a child. Estell has a likeable screen presence, but is asked to deliver some unforgivable lines that are far too idealized and age-inappropriate for her character. It is too bad that a film that shows exceptional sensitivity to its adult characters so badly fails the girl on whose behalf they are fighting.
Parents should know that this film includes some strong language, including racist epithets, drug and alcohol abuse, and sad offscreen deaths. The family issues and custody battle may be upsetting to some viewers.
Family discussion: If you were the judge, where would you put Eloise? Why does Duvon write so many papers? Why does he learn so many languages?
Robert Downey Jr. gives his best performance since “Chaplin” in “The Judge,” an absorbing story of family, redemption and home.
Downey co-produced and stars as Hank Palmer, a Chicago criminal defense attorney known for doing whatever it takes to get his clients a “not guilty” verdict. Hank relies on his two strengths and his belief in a third. He has a restless intelligence that operates like a perpetual random radar signal going off in every direction at once. As we will see in a sensational bar scene where he sizes up some guys heading towards him with fight in their eyes, Hank can size up a situation and formulate a dazzling verbal response in an instant. But that same intelligence also makes him impatient and dismissive.
Hank also has a coping mechanism for keeping him focused that has worked very effectively. It is basically not to think too much about anything but winning. Other lawyers in the movie will talk about their view of the law — that it is a mechanism for making sure individuals take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, that it is the one place where everyone is equal. Hank’s professional career has been dedicated pretty much to proving the opposite.
And Hank thinks of himself as a devoted father to his little girl, Lauren (Emma Tremblay of “The Giver”) because he loves her dearly, though, as his estranged wife points out, he cannot name her teachers, best friends, or favorite color.
These two skills and one inflated idea are what sustain Hank, and over the next seven months, he will have to give up all three to explore who he is, where he came from, and how these protective mechanisms are no longer keeping him safe but keeping him stuck. The greatest pleasure of this film is seeing Downey’s responses as a man who is very, very good at what he does learn that none of that is of any help to him.
We first see Hank taunting his opposing counsel in the courthouse men’s room. “I respect the law,” he says. “I’m just not encumbered by it.” He is representing a man he knows to be guilty of massive financial fraud. As the trial begins, he gets a message that his mother has died. Hank, who has assembled the life he thought would make him happy, a fancy home, a fancy car, a beautiful wife, will have to do something he has been avoiding for years. He will have to return to his small hometown, Carlinville, Indiana. While it is his father who is a judge by profession, either could be the title character. Hank has done a lot of judging of those around him and, like his father, he has found just about everyone not up to his standard.
The golden, elegiac tones provided by master cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and steeped in tradition, slightly formal soundtrack from Thomas Newman introduce us to the town. Hank pays his respects to his mother with his brothers, sweet-natured, developmentally disabled Dale (Jeremy Strong), who always carries his Super 8 movie camera, and Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a once-promising athlete who was injured and stayed in town to run a tire store. His father, the judge (Robert Duvall), is presiding. Hank watches from the balcony. Some things never change. His father still tells defendants that “Yeah” is not the way to speak in a courtroom.
But some things have changed. The judge cannot remember the name of his longtime bailiff. Hank suspects his father, sober for many years, may have started drinking again.
Hank is uncomfortable and feels unwelcome. His old room has been used for storage. He can barely find his bed. His father and brothers barely speak to him. Even an encounter with his high school girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga, wonderfully earthy) cannot make him anything but out of place and eager to get away.
And then the judge is accused of murder. The night of the funeral, he was driving in the rain. A man riding a bicycle is dead, his blood on the judge’s fender. The dead man and the judge had a history. Hank wants to defend his father, mostly because he is still hungry for his father’s approval and this will give him a chance to show the judge what he does best. He may not be much to brag about outside the courtroom, but inside the court is where he lives. That is something Hank and his dad share.
Co-writer and director David Dobkin is best known for wild, raunchy comedies like “The Wedding Crashers.” Like Hank, and like the man who plays him, Dobkin here moves to the grown-up table with a rich, thoughtful, beautifully structured film, with moments of humor that are among the funniest you will see this year. The jury selection scene is a treat all its own.
It would be enough just to get a chance to see Downey show how much more he is capable of than even his brilliant work as Tony Stark or in small gems like “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Wonder Boys.” Here he gives a master class in acting, never less than fully present in showing us Hank’s layers of protection and the deep yearning for connection they cannot hide. The open-heartedness and vulnerability of this performance are deeply moving, a gift from Hank the character and from the man who plays him. But this is an enormously wise and moving story, beautifully told.
Parents should know that this film has strong and crude language, sad deaths of parents, infidelity and divorce, serious car accidents with injuries and death (nothing explicit), graphic depiction of various bodily functions and fluids, gastrointestinal distress foilowing cancer treatment, sexual references, drinking and discussions of alcohol abuse and drug use
Family discussion: How were Hank and his father alike? What made it hard for them to get along?
If you like this, try: “The Client” and more films from Robert Downey, Jr. (“Chaplin,” “The Avengers”) and Robert Duvall (“The Apostle,” “Tender Mercies”)