Director: Simon Curtis
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany, Frances Fisher, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Antje Traue, Tom Schilling, Henry Goodman, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Moritz Bleibtreu
Runtime: 1 hr 50 mins
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/WomanInGoldMovie
Opening Day: 27 August 2015
Synopsis: Academy Award winner Helen Mirren stars in the incredible story of Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee who is forced to flee Vienna during World War II. Decades later, determined to salvage some dignity from her past, Maria has taken on a mission to reclaim a painting the Nazis stole from her family: the famous Lady In Gold, a portrait of her beloved Aunt Adele. Partnering with an inexperienced but determined young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds), Maria embarks on an epic journey for justice 60 years in the making.
There is a fascinating story at the heart of ‘Woman in Gold’, but somehow it seems muted under the direction of Simon Curtis and the screenwriting of Alexi Kaye Campbell. Adapted from the life stories of its two leading protagonists, the Austrian-Jewish Holocaust refugee Maria Altmann and the struggling young lawyer E. Randol “Randy” Schoenberg, it charts their five-year-plus battle in courtrooms from California to Washington to Vienna to regain rightful ownership of Gustav Klimt's masterwork ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ which belonged to Maria’s family together with other Klimt paintings until they were seized by the invading German Nazis in World War II.
Because Google can pretty much tell you the outcome of their lengthy legal battle, the value of this account is really in their journey, which unfortunately isn’t quite as compelling as it should have been. Both Curtis and Campbell are well aware that Maria’s quest is not just about natural justice but also personal closure, coming to terms with the emotions that have haunted her since she was forced to leave Austria more than five decades ago. Indeed, it is only through empathising with these circumstances that we would be able to understand the psychological turmoil that she had to brace herself for, but that connection between past and present proves to be the film’s weakest link.
Told in flashback, Maria’s past is gripping in and of itself, spanning Maria’s upper-class Viennese childhood as well as the later Nazi Anschluss into Austria. Notwithstanding their fragmented nature, these scenes of the cultured life, the Nazi invasion, the subsequent public humiliation of the Jewish people, the closing of the country’s borders, and last but not least, Maria’s flight to freedom with her husband unfold with dramatic urgency and poignancy that the rest of the film sorely lacks. If you know your ‘Orphan Black’, you’ll recognise breakout star Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria, and a particulae scene in which she says goodbye to her father Gustav (Allan Corduner) whom she will never see again is deeply moving.
How that relates back to Maria’s struggles in present day is something which both director and screenwriter struggle with. Too often, a scene from the past ends with Maria summoning defiance and determination in equal measure, and while that works at certain points in the narrative, it is all too clear in many other instances how it is meant to gloss over awkward transitions that could have given us a deeper understanding of Maria’s emotional state. Ditto for Randy, whose transformation from detachment to conviction happens over one simple visit to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Vienna that leaves him bawling in tears in the nearby men’s room immediately after. It is unconvincing to say the least, and yet another example of how lacking Campbell’s script is in solid character work.
On the other hand, Maria’s legal rollercoaster to reclaim ownership of the paintings feels utterly pedestrian, no matter that we are taken across a restitution hearing in Austria to the US Supreme Court and back to Austria for the final arbitration. Condensed for expediency, they are nonetheless told with old-fashioned Hollywoodization that simplifies intriguing matters of provenance and legal manoeuvring. Instead, the filmmakers seem more preoccupied with the dynamic between Maria and Randy, which while performed with verve by Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, comes across too familiar and convenient.
We know that Randy will start off sceptical and indifferent before being obsessed by the case despite the objections of his law firm boss (Charles Dance) and his pregnant wife (Katie Holmes). We too expect that Maria will, despite her initial gumption, face doubts about how far she should push her face in the face of seemingly insurmountable legal odds, and that Randy will be the one to lend her moral support. There are no surprises to the evolving relationship between lawyer and client, even as their roles blur, but Mirren and Reynolds share an engaging rapport that keeps us from losing interest in the perfunctory.
The supporting cast however have no such luck, given their criminally underwritten roles. Besides Holmes, Daniel Bruhl has little to work with as the investigative reporter whose research into the Altmann estate served as a crucial point in determining the outcome. Elizabeth McGovern and Johnathan Pryce also appear in judicial robes on the Stateside, but their appearances are no better than glorified cameos. It isn’t quite clear what persuaded these thespians to do day-player duty in this film, and our best guess is that they were somehow attracted by the subject matter to participate in some form or other.
Such intentions are perfectly understandable, given what a remarkable true story this film has as its source material. Sadly, it is precisely for this reason that one suspects there is a much, much better film waiting to get out, one that doesn’t just play it safe, go through the beats and as a result come off just superficial. It’s a paint-by-numbers account at best, and even with top-notch performances by Mirren and Reynolds, there is no saving this promising movie from falling into mediocrity.
(An unspectacular account of a spectacular true story, this paint-by-numbers retelling of how Austria lost its 'Mona Lisa' to New York is still engaging for Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds' performances)
Review by Gabriel Chong