By Kyle G. King. The Nazi occupation across Europe has provided an inexhaustible wealth of stories for Hollywood to conjure. From tear-jerking prison dramas to action-packed war movies, filmmakers across time and nation have plugged into this era to affix powerful subject matter to riveting tales of oppression and injustice. Teaming up with My Week with Marilyn director Simon Curtis, screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell takes a seldom traveled path that details the annexation of Austria and the repercussions of Nazi fascism within the art world in his screenwriting debut, Woman In Gold.
An off-genre Ryan Reynolds and the always impeccable Helen Mirren join to tell the story of The Republic of Austria v. Maria Altmann and to detail the complicated adventure of Gustav Klimt’s renowned painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I as it made its way from Vienna to the Neue Gallery in New York City. Mirren plays Altmann, a woman from a wealthy, art-loving Austrian family who fled the Nazis as a newlywed in the late 1930s, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Reynolds is Randy Schoenberg, her young lawyer — he’s culled from a family friend — who’s in way over his head, yet with sheer boldness, the help of an Austrian journalist (an underused Daniel Brül), and some extremely helpful American judges, Schoenberg sets out to reclaim the artwork that was stolen from Altmann’s family and to restore it to its “rightful” owner.
Woman in Gold quickly falters in many places: Reynolds’ unusually bland screentime doesn’t help his cookie-cutter support character, and every scene of his home life (across from a surprisingly still-active Katie Holmes as his wife) manages to be both dull and implausible. But Mirren, as you might expect, takes hold of the movie and steers it home. Her Maria is heartfelt yet tough, with the poise of a woman who perpetually expects to face challenge, and when she finally breaks down (late in the movie), it’s personal and moving. It’s a performance that leaves you wanting to know more about this woman and her life, or at least more than the otherwise-intriguing Woman in Gold is prepared to relate.
For a story so dense with turns and facts, Curtis and Campbell drown it in an unusual amount of courtroom time and legislative processes — these scenes are best served with the organic drama there to back them up and instead it operates as a Hans Zimmer free-play session. With two actors as charismatic as Mirren and Reynolds, it’s a bit disappointing that their charm never really manages to energize the slower ends. Part of that is for effect — they’re supposed to grow to love and admire one another — but the eventual payoff doesn’t connect. These characters aren’t equipped to deliver the lively generational commentary that this story so desperately needs.
The flashbacks, ranging from Maria’s childhood to her early 20s (supported by Tatiana Maslany), are meant to contextualize Maria’s struggle. We see a young girl’s life upended by the brutality of the Nazi regime and the cruel indifference of her fellow Austrians. But, steeped in the obligatory sepia and lace, these sequences are as adventurous as a paint-by-numbers: It’s a beautiful finished product but it lacks inventive creative prowess.
Instead of engaging in any dialogue about the idea of reclamation, the film has a predetermined moral narrative. Short of Brül’s character, who serves as an obvious “not all Austrians are bad” tokenization, the Austrians are portrayed as thieving, greedy, and wholly disinterested in the past traumas of its exiled citizens. It hardly resonates as a thrilling legal drama, even when they reach the Supreme Court of the United States, every victory plays without punch.
Beyond Mirren, the most admiring work to be found is the film’s ability to jaunt into stories spanning nearly a century and still feel authentic within each time period, but what holds it back is any calibration within them. Woman in Gold reaches for glossy, based-on-a-true-story cinematic heights with the attractive yet short wingspan of one of its made-for-television counterparts.