“Woman in Gold” rests heavily on the squared shoulders of Helen Mirren, whose character, Maria Altmann, is a proud, elderly Austrian Jewish woman who fled the Nazi scourge to settle in California.
Reawakened to the past by the death of her sister, at whose 1998 funeral she is first observed, Maria wages a protracted legal battle to regain possession of a priceless canvas stolen from her family by the Nazis 60 years earlier.
In this drama based on real life, the artwork, Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” is a regal painting encrusted with gold leaf of Maria’s beloved Aunt Adele. Many consider it the Mona Lisa of Austria, and to some Austrians, keeping this magnificent work in the country is a matter of national honor.
Although Maria lives modestly, as embodied by Mirren, she is a woman of enormous cultural refinement and as formidable a personage in her way as Mirren’s sometime stage and screen alter ego, Queen Elizabeth II. Assuming a clipped Viennese accent and maintaining a rigid posture, she exudes a keen-eyed patrician composure.
Mirren’s portrayal of this sometimes fearsome woman who doesn’t suffer fools is ultimately sympathetic; her chilly reserve and aristocratic manners camouflage a reservoir of feeling. Her dry-eyed performance is the more impressive because the role could so easily have been milked for weepy sentimentality. For apart from Mirren’s performance, “Woman in Gold” smugly and shamelessly pushes familiar buttons.
As directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”) from a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, “Woman in Gold” turns a complicated story with many debatable questions about artistic provenance and ownership into a standard historical drama about good guys versus bad guys.
The bad guys are modern-day Austrians, portrayed as cold, arrogant enemies of truth and justice. Their legal battle to keep the work in Austria is subtly used as evidence of a residual nostalgia for the Nazi occupation, tinged with anti-Semitism, although none is voiced outright. The good guys are Holocaust refugees and their American descendants, who take Maria’s case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The story begins with the death of Maria’s sister, in whose belongings are records of her unsuccessful effort to recover five Klimt paintings displayed in the Belvedere in Vienna. Maria engages Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and an inexperienced young lawyer, who persuades her to accompany him to Vienna, a city to which she vowed she would never return after fleeing the Nazis.
A legal fight over the struggle for ownership of an artwork is hardly the stuff of high drama. And the screenplay can’t find a way to make that conflict, or the ethical and moral issues involved, compelling beyond the obvious guessing game of who will win.
Maria’s ambivalence about continuing to pursue what sometimes seems to be a hopeless quest is the dramatic core of the film. Once she and Randy arrive in Vienna, the paperwork concerning the painting’s history is withheld from them. Only with the help of a local journalist (Daniel Bruhl) can they penetrate the wall of secrecy and evasion and learn that the painting, commissioned by Adele’s husband, and later acquired by the Belvedere’s duplicitous curator, belonged not to Adele, but to her husband, who willed it to his heirs.
Maria changes and softens as the story advances. In Vienna, she is bombarded with memories of her childhood and the 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.
The film’s most gripping scenes are flashbacks portraying the Nazis’ triumphant entrance into Vienna, where welcoming throngs line the streets. One especially upsetting scene shows Jews forced to scrub sidewalks to the delight of contemptuous onlookers. As unsettling as they are, such moments in a dramatically undernourished film make the viewer acutely aware of being emotionally manipulated. When the young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) flees Vienna, her parents’ final words, “remember us,” strike a tone of mawkish nobility that characterize the heavy-handedness of the screenplay and of the score, by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer.
The casting of Reynolds as Randy is especially unfortunate. Playing a lawyer, this Hollywood lightweight, given glasses to make him look serious, delivers a bland, colorless performance. As Randy’s deepening involvement in the case becomes an obsession, causing him to quit his job and devote everything to Maria’s cause, Reynolds works hard and even breaks down in tears, but his performance is shallow and unconvincing.
It remains for Mirren to salvage a film that without her would be a laborious slog down a well-trodden path.