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Woman in Gold

D: Simon Curtis / 109m

Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Tom Schilling, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Nina Kunzendorf, Justus von Dohnányi

Following the death of her sister, Maria Altmann (Mirren), who fled from Austria before the war and now resides in Los Angeles, finds letters that relate to an attempt to recover artwork that her family owned before it was stolen by the Nazis, and in particular, the famous Klimt painting, Woman in Gold (who in reality was Maria’s aunt Adele). This painting and several other items are on display in a gallery in Vienna, Maria’s birthplace. Wanting to get them back, she enlists the help of a friend’s son, lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds).

They travel to Vienna – against Maria’s initial wishes – but find that the country’s minister and art director are unwilling to hear her case. The Klimt painting is regarded as a national treasure, and Maria is told that it was given to the gallery in Adele’s will. Schoenberg, aided by Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (Brühl), discovers that it wasn’t Adele’s property in the first place, but even though this evidence is presented to the Austrian officials, and a hearing takes place, Maria’s claim is denied. Unable to challenge the ruling because the cost is too prohibitive, Maria and Schoenberg return to the US.

Some time later, Schoenberg is browsing in a bookstore when he sees an art book with the Woman in Gold on the cover. It gives him an idea but Maria is against pursuing the claim any further. He manages to persuade her to move forward, and using precedents relating to retroactive art restitution claims, begins the process of suing the Austrian government for the return of the artwork. The case goes all the way to the Supreme Court, where the case is ruled in Maria’s favour. But it still means she and Schoenberg need to return to Vienna to resolve the claim completely. Maria refuses to go, and Schoenberg goes by himself. There he pleads their case to the art restitution board, a panel of three who are the last hurdle in the attempt to get the artwork returned.

Woman in Gold - scene

If you’re already aware of the case of the Woman in Gold, then you’ll know how the movie ends, but in many ways the outcome – which most people could accurately predict – isn’t the focus here, but the way in which notions of family and heritage are portrayed via the flashbacks to Maria’s youth, and the resonance they have in the present day.

The modern day scenes, while adequately presented and lensed in a way that adds a sheen to events, are moderately effective and benefit greatly from the performances of Mirren and Reynolds. But they’re also largely perfunctory, a predictable set of events and occasions that tick all the appropriate boxes: investigation, doubts, bureaucratic indolence, setback, regrouping, pushing forward to a final resolution. It’s all handled with intelligence and precision but this actually robs the modern day scenes of any emotion. Despite Mirren’s semi-anguished, semi-determined portrayal, and Reynolds’ naïve yet stubborn lawyer, the movie seems too generic in these moments, as if it were following some kind of true story template.

Where the movie improves is in its recreation of the younger Maria’s family life, the relationship she has with her parents, and the myriad relatives and friends that populate their apartment. Here there’s life aplenty, and a sense of an age when life wasn’t about looking back. In contrast to the older Maria’s attempts to reclaim what’s rightfully hers, the scenes from her youth are redolent of ownership of both the times and the place they live in. It’s a microcosm to be sure, but one that you feel would have been replicated in many other homes as well. When that ownership turns to loss, and Maria and her husband Fritz make plans to leave Austria for the US, and in doing so leave their families to an uncertain fate, the emotional strain is clearly and effectively shown, giving those scenes the resonance the modern day story lacks.

That said, in the hands of Mirren and Reynolds, the quest to win back the Woman in Gold is more compelling than it seems from the basic qualities of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s script. Aside from some legal technicalities, it’s a straightforward, plainly told endeavour that would have seemed even blander without their participation. The rest of the cast are used to a much lesser extent, often to the point of appearing in what are mostly cameo roles (McGovern, Pryce, Dance) or in supporting roles that add little to the overall story (Holmes, Irons). But again its the cast who appear in the pre-war scenes (Corduner, Goodman, Traue, Kunzendorf) who come off best, and in particular Maslany as the younger Maria, who exudes a fortitude and an honesty that Mirren reflects with ease.

In the end, as a drama, Woman in Gold isn’t quite as effective as it wants to be, and in places is far too turgid to work properly. As an exploration of one woman’s desire to be repatriated with her family’s possessions it’s moderately engaging, and while the viewer will no doubt sympathise with her plight, this is a David vs Goliath tale that lacks an emotional core to keep the viewer on the edge of the seat, or railing against the impropriety of the Austrian officials. Much of this is due to Curtis’s matter-of-fact directing style, which is unfussy and lacks a level of sophistication that would have improved things immeasurably.

Rating: 6/10 – with two stories intertwined, Woman in Gold suffers from only one of them – and not the main one – being interesting; with a cast that appear to have been encouraged to play down their roles to augment the two leads, this is a movie that stutters to the finish line, and unconvincingly at that.