Few actors or actresses can hold the screen the way Oscar winner Helen Mirren can. Sometimes, that’s enough or close to enough, especially when the alternative, imagining a particular film – in this case Simon Curtis’s (My Week with Marilyn) latest film, Woman in Gold – would make, if not for an entirely unpleasant experience, then a bland, forgettable one. As with every role, large or small, Mirren has taken on in her six decades onscreen, she’s never less than watchable and often gripping as the based-on-real-life (more or less) Maria Altmann, an Austrian by birth, an American citizen by (partial) choice, at the center of one of the most fascinating legal cases in recent history, the attempted recovery of Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” a painting of Altmann’s aunt, a key patron of the pre-WWII Viennese art scene, from a seemingly intractable Austrian government after more than five decades.
When we first meet Maria, the widowed owner of a clothing boutique, she’s delivering a eulogy for her late sister in a cemetery. In quick, broad strokes, Curtis and first-time screenwriter, Alexi Kaye Campbell, reveal Altmann as a vigorous, acerbic woman, simultaneously offering both generous and cutting words for her late sister. On her way out of the cemetery, she makes an effort to enlist the aid of a friend’s attorney son, E. Randol Schoenberg (a muted, low-key Ryan Reynolds), to help her with the recovery of five Klimt paintings, including the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” Maria has little on her side legally except some family papers, most, if not all, dating from her family’s post-war lives. A letter, however, is more than enough for Maria to press Schoenberg, a struggling attorney with a failed private practice behind him, a growing family to sustain, and a new, potentially lucrative gig at a high-end LA law firm, to represent her, first on his own time and later, full-time on his own at great financial risk.
Schoenberg initially rejects Maria’s offer, citing time, labor, and resources (he has little of all three), but eventually comes around to their legal collaboration. Curtis and Campbell ascribe nothing but pure, non-pecuniary motives to Maria (which may or may not have been true), and at least at first, nothing but financial ones for Schoenberg. A generation removed from the Holocaust and feeling closer, more personal ties to America than the Europe of his extended family, Schoenberg undergoes a perfunctory transformation from selfishness to altruism. A similar transformation, however, is missing from Maria’s character arc (she essentially has none). Schoenberg also learns to embrace his European Jewish past, including the Holocaust and his famous grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg, in between visits to U.S. courtrooms to determine whether Altmann can sue Austria in a federal court (a jurisdictional issue under the 1978 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act), a question resolved only through the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then on to the less formal, but no less bureaucratic environs of the Austrian government’s committee assigned to review legal claims related to art stolen during World War II by the Nazis.
Woman in Gold acknowledges the rationales for the Austrian government’s repeated intransigence, the floodgates that would open if Maria won her high-profile case, but more importantly, the importance of Klimt’s painting (“Austria’s Mona Lisa”) to Austria’s post-war national identity, while simultaneously making the Austrian government’s representatives cartoonish, empathy-challenged villains. That might make for cleaner, less ambiguous storytelling, but it also makes Woman in Gold feel cheaply manipulative (as opposed to earned manipulation). Mixing Maria’s present-day legal battles with Maria’s pre-war and wartime memories – highlighted by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany giving an impressive performance as a young Maria – adequately (emphasis on “adequately”) conveys Maria’s wrenching experiences, but it also leans heavily on unneeded melodrama. A subtler, nuanced approach, one where every emotion or narrative development wasn’t explicitly turned into dialogue or underlined through a heavy-handed score would have made for a far more emotionally resonant, dramatically compelling experience.