Just about a year ago, The Monuments Men was making the rounds of local cinemas, and hanging in there a fair bit longer than most top-echelon film critics would have predicted. In the interim, the difficulty of getting art stolen by the Nazis back to its rightful owners hasn’t eased significantly, so Simon Curtis’ new movie Woman in Gold remains relevant. Like its predecessor, it’s also more likely to prove popular with audiences craving old-fashioned drama than the pundits would have it.
Otherwise, especially in tone, the two films don’t have a great deal in common. Woman in Gold gets off to a bit of a rocky start, seeming neither fish nor fowl: a shiny, heart-tugging Hollywood movie trying a little too hard to pass for a moody, serious European art film. When we first meet Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, the Austrian Jewish refugee from whose family Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was stolen, she’s living in a modest middle-class home in sunny Southern California and running a little dress shop. When we first meet the young attorney destined to help her get her inheritance back, E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), he’s a green, socially awkward bumbler who seems to have stepped out of a sitcom.
Though he’s the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg and lost relatives in the Holocaust, Randy seems emotionally disconnected from his own family history and only takes up Maria’s cause because he smells money in it. Predictably, this will change. Act I consists primarily of the byplay between the two as the strong-willed, classy-but-snarky Maria reels him into her quest to be reunited with the portrait of her beloved Aunt Adele. If this sounds like a retread of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena, you wouldn’t be far wrong – though in this case, it’s the old lady who’s the embittered one and the younger man the comparative innocent. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s somewhat plodding script flails away at some cheap laughs in these early scenes, but eventually – and wisely – gives up on that idea.
After a while, the movie seems to find its tonal level. Randy manages to persuade Maria to return to Vienna – a place that she had sworn never to revisit – to fight for the paintings on their home turf, after a series of articles by crusading Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (an excellent Daniel Brühl) shames his country into establishing a repatriation commission to review claims of Nazi art theft. Once there, old haunts provoke powerful flashbacks of not just the ugliness of the Anschluss, but also the joys and beauties of her girlhood in a home where her father played a Stradivarius cello, her uncle commissioned Klimt portraits and legends of the art world socialized.
Cinematographer Ross Emery upends expectations by rendering the California sequences in the shades of gold of the famous painting, then switching to a muted palette of mauve tones and off-black when the scene shifts to Vienna of the 1930s and ’40s. Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany portrays Maria as a newlywed, plausibly demonstrating how the older expatriate’s steely spine was forged in her painful separation from her parents and perilous flight to freedom. The scenes of the opening days of the Holocaust in Austria are remarkably decorous; we witness humiliation aplenty, but all the carnage happens offscreen.
Meanwhile, back in the 1990s, Maria, Randy and Hubertus find themselves up against a bureaucracy that proves every bit as intractable as the SS. Calling the Portrait of Adele “Austria’s Mona Lisa,” officials of the state museum known as the Belvedere tell her in no uncertain terms that they intend never to part with their Klimt treasures. One bureaucrat from the repatriation commission says, “You people never give up, do you? There’s more to life than the Holocaust, you know.” Anti-Semitism, apparently, dies slowly, even after the bad guys lose the war.
There’s a lot that goes down clunky in Woman in Gold, largely due to less-than-stellar writing and the rather weirdly cast Reynolds. But the elegant aplomb of Helen Mirren goes a long way to elevate any vehicle that she’s in, and by the end, the movie becomes emotionally involving almost in spite of itself. The unfolding of their David-and-Goliath legal battle is nothing that audiences haven’t seen onscreen many times before; still, one cannot help but cheer on this triad of improbable allies as they take turns lifting each other out of the doldrums of doubt and despair.
Woman in Gold, Upstate Films Rhinebeck, 6415 Montgomery Street (Route 9), Rhinebeck, (845) 876-2515; https://upstatefilms.org.