April 10, 2015
Drama, History Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language. (MPAA)
When telling a story that’s based on true events, one challenge is to make that story seem like it’s more than just a history lesson. It has to come alive. “Woman in Gold” doesn’t accomplish that.
At its beginning, a woman sits for a portrait painting. She’s Adele Bloch-Bauer, who’s referenced in this film’s title. Her painter is Gustav Klimt, a celebrated Austrian artist. Adele tells Gustav that she worries about the future. It’s 1907, so we (the audience) know the horrors that will come to Austria. But Adele dies at a young age, in 1925. She won’t live to see Austria under Nazi rule.
After that brief scene, “Woman in Gold” shuttles forward to 1998. The music flutters with optimistic anticipation. There’s magic in the air. In Los Angeles, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) speaks at the burial service of her sister. But this isn’t a mournful affair. Right after that service, we find out that Maria found letters among her sister’s belongings some time before. From them, she realizes that the painting of her Aunt Adele has been in the clutches of the Austrian government since World War II. It has become the Austrian “Mona Lisa.” To recover it, Maria seeks the help of Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). He’s the son of one of her friends and a lawyer who’s struggling to succeed.
After that, you can predict what comes next: Maria has to go to Austria in a fight to reclaim the painting. Of course, she doesn’t want to go, but she must. Randy will tell her so. There will be numerous obstacles. But, in the end, they will triumph.
This is all run-of-the-mill stuff. Director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell have created a film that does what must be done, but little else. “Woman in Gold” has the right look and the right sound. It appropriately uses a flashback structure. The flashbacks have some power, actually, but that’s largely due to the subject matter. We see why the painting is so important to Maria, in particular, and we understand why she wants it back. But this film never takes off. It doesn’t soar.
The one thing that could’ve helped to distinguish this film from many of its predecessors in this genre is the central relationship between Maria and Randy. The back-and-forth dialogue between the two of them could’ve created a much-needed spark. It could’ve provided an important counterpoint to the flashbacks. That kind of approach worked in “Philomena.” In that film, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan were well-matched and had great chemistry. Their exchanges were sharp. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Mirren and Reynolds. Helen Mirren, of course, does her job. Her accent is good; her rhythms are strong; and she has the right bearing. However, Ryan Reynolds isn’t up to the task of returning what she’s serving. He’s … OK, but he’s certainly not as committed to his role as he needs to be in order to make this film sing. If he had used the tension between wanting to be respectful of an older woman and needing to get her to see things his way, he could’ve created something special. It would’ve been much more engaging, at least. Look, when you wear glasses and false teeth for a character, you have to act through all of that. I mean, come on. If you don’t rise to the occasion, it’ll verge on silliness. However, Reynolds can’t take all of the blame for this film’s periods of mediocrity. I’ll lay most of the blame at the writer’s and director’s feet.
“Woman in Gold” has all of the trappings of a good film, but its execution falls short. Overall, its cast is solid, but how you tell the story is what counts. This is about a great piece of art that’s a symbol of overcoming tragedy. Despite the relative success of its flashbacks, this film simply doesn’t hold up under the weight of that significance.
WOMAN IN GOLD is the remarkable true story of one woman’s journey to reclaim her heritage and seek justice for what happened to her family. Sixty years after she fled Vienna during World War II, an elderly Jewish woman, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), starts her journey to retrieve family possessions seized by the Nazis, among them Klimt’s famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Together with her inexperienced but plucky young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she embarks upon a major battle which takes them all the way to the heart of the Austrian establishment and the U.S. Supreme Court, and forces her to confront difficult truths about the past along the way.