“Woman in Gold” is a very good story meekly told. It’s a dramatization of one woman’s attempt to recover the art looted from one Jewish family by the Nazis, rendered in mostly flat tones and trite dialogue.
A good rule of thumb for any screenwriter, in this case character actor-turned-writer Alexi Kaye Campbell, is to never give a regal, Oscar-winning actress like Helen Mirren trifling lines like this: “Ach, come, have some strudel,” her character, Maria Altmann, says to a young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds). “I made it especially for you.”
Mirren, the once and future “Queen,” is saddled with pages of this stuff in a screenplay that doesn’t sound like its author has listened to real people, only old movies with hackneyed, Old World-accented dialogue.
Altmann was a Beverly Hills dress shop owner who went to court and to the mat with the Austrian government and people, who had lived comfortably with half-a-century of denial over their complicity in the German crimes of World War II. Reynolds underplays Randol Schoenberg, an overmatched and green Los Angeles attorney, grandson of the great Austrian-Jewish composer Arnold Schoenberg. Family connections send Maria to him, and a growing sense of grief, outrage and responsibility drive him to sue a Vienna museum and Austria itself over five stolen masterpieces by Austria’s own Gustav Klimt.
The jewel among them was the gold leaf-embossed portrait of the “Woman in Gold.” To Maria, she was her Aunt Adele, a woman she knew in person and a painting she’d seen in the family home until the day it was confiscated and moved to a museum.
Director Simon Curtis can’t do much to animate the first hour of this script, with its arcane discussion of “art restitution” and Maria’s dithering over having to return to “that place” and fight with unscrupulous Austrians who consider Klimt’s paintings their national patrimony. Flashbacks illustrate the rich, comfortable life that, as arts patrons, her family enjoyed before Austria’s annexation by Germany.
Then we see the breathless escape of young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband.
“Unlike Lot’s wife,” Maria muses, “I never looked back.”
We ignore the cloying dialogue as we get our fill of Austrians hiding evidence, stacking the deck on “review panels” of the case, and we get outraged even if Maria seems to have wearied of the fight and Randol wonders whether he’s abandoned his career for naught.
Better late than never, “Woman in Gold” starts to grip us. We begin to appreciate the process of “freeing” these “last prisoners of World War II” from a present that is happily ignoring that past.
Like the similarly-themed “Monuments Men,” “Woman in Gold” is burdened by being about what’s at stake – objects, history, heritage – and less about lives.
It’s a labored film thanks to trite dialogue, to interesting characters that are given short shrift and to the many court scenes that have a hint of humor but no spark. This is passable as history, but the climax is so anti-climactic that “Woman in Gold” never merits more than a bronze medal.
‘Woman in Gold’
Rated: PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl
Directed by: Simon Curtis