It feels like the story at the core of Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold should be more interesting, but this 2015 British drama winds up dawdling through nearly two hours without ever managing an emotional connection. With a screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell, this movie is based on the true story of Maria Altmann and her fight against the Austrian government to reclaim a painting of her aunt.
Curtis strolls through every “issue film” cliché known to man, milking the fine Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer score for everything he can and allowing Ross Emery’s cinematography to showcase the ins and outs of Vienna with a sort of routine heartlessness. He also utilizes flashbacks to attempt some form of human connection to the main tale of an art restitution case.
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) finds her sister’s letters that reveal a lost painting known as the “Woman in Gold.” The painting had been taken from Maria’s family by the Nazis in 1940s Austria and efforts to reclaim it wound up without resolution. The painting by Gustav Klimt hangs in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna and Maria decides she wants it back.
She hires lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who has little experience but takes on the case and heads to Austria with a reluctant Maria to tangle with the government. Altmann is told that her aunt gave the painting to the gallery in her will, but an Austrian journalist (Daniel Brühl) suggests that this isn’t the case. Maria’s efforts to get her painting back lead all the way to the Supreme Court.
The true story of the painting of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Klimt involves a lot of legal wrangling, with the subject of the painting a member of Austria’s upper crust. She apparently asked her husband to donate the painting to the state gallery when she died in 1925 of meningitis, but her widower fled to Prague and beyond after the annexation of their homeland.
As the film explains in flashbacks, the Nazis eventually provide trouble for the Altmann family and young Maria (Tatiana Maslany). She attempts to escape the country before the entire place is shut down by the Nazis, which leads to her eventual departure to the United States and the movie’s obligatory “intense escape sequences.”
By now, these tropes are well-worn. The difference here is that the story behind Woman in Gold is almost insufferably tedious. Little is made of the larger context of the tale and it becomes a little rich to watch the atrocities of Nazi encroachment boil down to the theft of a painting of someone’s aunt. There’s no sense that this should matter, in other words.
Obviously, the Nazis stole a lot of art. And obviously there are stories to be told of fragments of lives ripped from the walls. But Woman in Gold plays it plastic, drifting bleakly through its paces while clinging to scraps of historical import. For all the elevation Mirren attempts in her performance as Maria, the rest of the picture fails to manage significance.
And make no mistake about it, nobody is that good here. Mirren and Maslany, the present and past versions of Maria, do not play as the same person separated by time. There is little to connect the two visions apart from their names and the tones Curtis uses when indicating which time period he’s in. There are two adequate performances, but they feel hermetically sealed by everything else.
Reynolds is the wisecracking youngster and he plays against Mirren as anyone would expect. They share an uneasy beginning and build to a friendship just in time for a big blow-up and the eventual save. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. It’s paint-by-numbers filmmaking at its dullest, complete with the requisite “she’s not going, no wait she is” scene to close things out.
Much like Curtis’ debut, the drab 2011 film My Week with Marilyn, Woman in Gold yanks something mildly interesting out of real life and covers it in monotony. There are no attempts to reach beyond to find emotional meaning, no attempts to create shades of grey out of this relatively coldblooded tale, no attempts to weave a story that actually bloody matters. A shame.