Release: Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell
Directed by: Simon Curtis
For a film trading in the recovery of stolen artwork at the hands of the Nazis Woman in Gold should, without necessarily resorting to graphic depiction, linger in the mind much longer than it’s going to.
Simon Curtis’ suitably respectful tone and ability to extract heartfelt performances from his leads does not make for a product that approaches poor quality, but here is a film that wastes more often than passes time laboring over detail in its over-reliance on flashbacks to set the scene of a contemporary legal battle. The legalities in question revolve around Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (an endearing Helen Mirren) and a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who together bring the Austrian government to court in a bitter dispute over whom some of the nation’s most famed artwork ultimately belong to.
One particular painting by Gustav Klimt, the ‘Woman in Gold’ portrait — so named by the Nazis who took it from her home — of Maria’s aunt Adele is regarded as “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Austria” and is valued at $135 million (this is the price a New York museum buys it for when all is said and done, anyway). This is the piece with which Maria’s ultimate concerns lie. Will the last remnants of her family history remain property of the famed Belvedere Gallery in Vienna or do they belong stateside with her? A large portion of the film is indeed spent in the present (well, in 1998 Los Angeles) focusing on the practicalities of setting up her case. Reynolds is excellent in another mature performance as Maria’s put-upon legal representation. His new job at a major law firm grants him a week to pursue this most unlikely avenue but his boss (Charles Dance) advises him that he ought not to get too invested.
Which of course he absolutely does. His initial impetus for helping out the elderly (and cranky) woman is of a financial nature, which no one can really blame him for. But things change once he has spent said week in Vienna only to have unsuccessfully built a case for Maria to retrieve the art. An Austrian journalist by the name of Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl) inexplicably, though conveniently, takes an interest in the case as well, assuring them that not all hope is lost, although in order to pursue further action it’ll cost the pair a fortune in court costs. Thus far investing in the drama is almost as effortless as Mirren makes it look in portraying a woman so historically connected to, yet simultaneously repulsed by this part of the world, and Reynolds is again far removed from his days as a partying, wise-cracking slacker.
One of Woman in Gold‘s strengths is its ability to etch a portrait of human strength using minimally distracting cinematic tricks. The flashbacks are perhaps as ambitious as this film gets. Quite a few moments spent in the 30s serve to heighten the drama and contextualize our first visit to Vienna, a trip Maria initially claims she’d rather die before undertaking. We should have some background on this character, the significance of the artwork as well as the characters of Maria’s opposition. Of course, the fascists hiding in the shadows of the past we need little introduction to.
Unfortunately Curtis overestimates the technique’s effectiveness. After awhile the repetition and reinforcement of Maria’s haunted past cross over into redundant exercises in sentimentality. There are easily ten to 15 minutes that could be removed from his final cut. For a film that clocks in under the two hour mark time moves rather listlessly, save for a harrowing scene that explains just how narrowly Maria and her husband managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis. Woman in Gold is certainly not known for its action sequences, nor should it be, and perhaps it is overly critical to call out its deliberate pacing for this is a narrative that effectively absorbs — particularly hitting upon nostalgia with a marvelously crafted opening scene. Impossible to shake though, is the sense that the film sans a few of the trips down memory lane would have struck a deeper nerve.
This is a potent film all the same. It’s terrifically acted and to their credit the flashback cuts possess an ethereal quality that begets an, ironically enough, simpler era. They counter in an often colder palette the warm yellows and reds of the modern portions. Indeed, cinematography resembles that of a labor of artistic love. Maybe not as elegant as a Klimt, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes and heart all the same.
Recommendation: The true story of Maria Altmann, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 94, makes for compelling cinema. This is a few shades away from being a truly memorable tale though and could have benefitted from editing and a few sharper scenes. Still, it’s getting ever more exciting watching Ryan Reynolds adapt his skill set and any fan of historical events and Helen Mirren ought not to give this a pass.
Running Time: 109 mins.
Quoted: “I wasn’t going to miss all of the fun! This is like a James Bond film, and you’re Sean Connery.”
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