There’s a long history of mediocre filmmaking being given a pass because the phrase “remarkable true story” is attached, and Woman in Gold will likely slot into that tradition. Criticizing Simon Curtis‘ emphatic chronicle of the battle of Austrian-Jewish Holocaust refugee Maria Altmann to recover the Gustav Klimt painting stolen by the Nazis from her family risks being misread as disrespect for the countless people who endured similar violations, many of them still awaiting restitution. But while Helen Mirren elevates the material with her usual aplomb and the events being depicted inevitably are stirring, this is a stodgy crusade-for-justice drama, directed and written with minimal flair.
Altmann had lived in California since fleeing Europe with her husband during World War II when the death of her sister brought documents to light concerning a number of Klimt paintings and other valuables looted by the Nazis from the home of her well-heeled Viennese family.
One of the Klimts, in particular, had special significance to her. A dazzling art nouveau masterwork richly embellished with gold leaf, it depicted her beloved aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, who had lived with the Altmanns until her untimely death from meningitis at age 43, and was virtually a second mother to Maria and her sister. Hanging in the Belvedere Palace since the war, the painting had come to be regarded as Austria’s “Mona Lisa,” while the museum had conveniently buried the paperwork concerning its provenance.
This first step into screenwriting for Brit playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell suffers from a general lack of economy and a tendency to spell out its righteous indignation in speechy dialogue, even when the characters aren’t at a podium or in a courtroom.
Mirren’s characterization as Maria, however, is the classy exception. She’s first seen speaking at her sister’s funeral in Los Angeles in 1998, and instantly, we understand this woman, from her impeccable Euro-chic appearance to her proud bearing to the acerbic edge that suggests her internalized sense of moral outrage. Even Mirren’s Austrian accent is crisply understated. With brisk, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer efficiency, Maria enlists the help of struggling young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to look over papers and see if she has a case to retrieve her family possessions, including the Klimt portrait.
If Mirren is well cast, Reynolds is the opposite, and not just because everything about him screams “goy.” The son of a judge and grandson of the famed composer, Randy represents a generation descended from Holocaust survivors who have often struggled to share the burdens of memory. Playing against type with a nerd makeover of cheap suit, glasses and physical clumsiness, Reynolds gives a routine impression of the character’s arc from guilt-induced obligation through professional opportunity to dogged determination and ennobled conviction.
That latter galvanic transformation comes in a ham-fisted scene in which a visit to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Vienna sends Randy scurrying to the men’s room to vent scalding tears of anger. It’s not that the emotions won’t be real and relatable for millions of refugee descendants, but the actor’s characterization is too superficial to be convincing. Scenes of Randy obsessively boning up on restitution law at home add little, with Katie Holmes on thankless duty as his supportive wife.
Despite some inelegant lurching between past and present, the film is most absorbing when Maria rethinks her refusal ever to return to Austria and accompanies Randy on their first trip to file a request with the national restitution committee. That visit uncorks a flood of memories, in which she’s played as a soulful young woman by Orphan Black breakout star Tatiana Maslany.
Maria relives her courtship and marriage to handsome opera singer Fritz (Max Irons); the elegant salons of her youth in a sumptuous, old-world apartment frequented by the most distinguished artists of the time; and the intoxicating influence of her glamorous Aunt Adele (Antje Traue). Hers was a family that relished such rituals as the Saturday-evening recitals of her father Gustav (Allan Corduner) on his Stradivarius cello, another treasure seized by the Nazis.
Aided by a local journalist (Daniel Bruhl) driven by his own moral compass to redress the injustices of the past, the present-day Maria and Randy encounter bureaucratic hurdles at every step. The Belvedere administration and Austrian culture minister are predictably defensive over the threat of the museum’s star attraction being removed. These experiences trigger increasingly disturbing memories for Maria: the stationing of a Nazi watchdog in her home; the cruel public humiliation of fellow Viennese Jews; the closing of the borders for departing citizens; and the heartwrenching choices she is forced to make when Fritz finds a means of escape.
While that backstory is highly compelling, Campbell’s script too often gets in the way with its on-the-nose dialogue. One notable example is a farewell scene in which Gustav switches from German to English, telling Maria, “Listen to me now in the language of your future.” As justification not to have to subtitle an emotional climax, it’s pretty feeble.
A brief prologue showing Adele posing for Klimt (played as a mad monk by Moritz Bleibtreu), is handled awkwardly. But director Curtis, who previously dramatized history in My Week With Marilyn, generally does well enough with the recreations of the past, assisted by solid work from production designer Jim Clay and costumer Beatrix Pasztor. But when the newly impassioned Randy refuses to comply with the wishes of the disheartened Maria, hauling the case through American courts and then back to Vienna for another inspirational showdown, the film becomes a pedestrian legal drama.
The appearance in judicial robes of name actors like Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce serves mainly to underline the production’s somewhat self-congratulatory feel about relating a story of sociopolitical importance.
Failing to layer suspense into the drama by more subtle means, Curtis instead attempts to stuff tension and emotional weight into every scene via an omnipresent score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer that leans hard on every button.
Through it all, the ineffably dignified Mirren rises above the occasion, even when the movie abandons restraint to milk her character’s legitimate pain and eventual bittersweet triumph for sentiment. It’s a moving story of social injustice put right, and it deserves a less heavy-handed retelling.
Opens: Friday, April 3 (Weinstein Co.)
Production company: Origin Pictures, The Weinstein Company, BBC Films
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Katie Holmes, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Tom Schilling, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Nina Kunzendorf
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Alexi Kaye Campbell, based on the life stories of E. Randol Schoenberg and Maria Altmann
Producers: David M. Thompson, Kris Thykier
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Harvey Weinstein, Negeen Yazdi, Robert Walak, Ed Wethered, Alan Yentob, Ed Rubin, Simon Curtis, Tim Jackson
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Jim Clay
Costume designer: Beatrix Pasztor
Music: Martin Phipps, Hans Zimmer
Editor: Peter Lambert
Casting: Gary Davy, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Simone Bar
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes.