Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 109 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. The film is about the aftermath of the Holocaust, so there are some flashbacks to Nazi-occupied Austria and the abuse suffered by the Jewish citizens (mocked for their religion, pushed around and violently assaulted, shot at, and otherwise harassed, along with the implication of various deaths), as well as some present-day cursing and discriminatory language.
‘Woman in Gold’ is by the numbers in practically every way, but it’s to the cast’s credit that this film about the battle between a Jewish woman and the Austrian government over art stolen by the Nazis still hits powerful emotional notes.
By Roxana Hadadi
Actress Helen Mirren can transform herself into anyone. She was an action star in 2013’s “RED 2,” a perfectionist restaurateur in 2014’s “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” and she’s relatable and fiery in her latest, “Woman in Gold,” as a Jewish woman taking on the Austrian government to claim artwork stolen from her family by the Nazis. Her costar, Ryan Reynolds, doesn’t fare as well—ill-fitting suits and clearly fake glasses does not make one a lawyer—but Mirren practically carries the entire film on her shoulders. You’ll feel for everything she’s going through.
Based on a true story but streamlined by director Simon Curtis (of “My Week with Marilyn”) and first-time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell, “Woman in Gold” tells the story of Maria Altmann (Mirren, of “The Hundred-Foot Journey”), who after her sister’s death discoveries decades-old correspondence from their family lawyer in Vienna, discussing various works of art that were stolen from the Altmann family by the Nazis after their expansion into Austria. The numerous paintings, including the famous “Woman in Gold” painting by Gustav Klimt, are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but Maria, the last Altmann, wants the painting (which she knows by the name “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” named after her aunt) back in the family. But the Austrian government claims that Maria’s aunt Adele, the subject of the portrait, bequeathed the paintings to the Belvedere Gallery and they’re rightfully theirs—and they’re not budging.
So Maria decides to explore her options by enlisting the assistance of friend’s son, the lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds, of “R.I.P.D.”), whose grandfather was a famous composer who was friendly with Altmann’s family back in Austria. Although Randol he doesn’t have any expertise in art or this kind of law, he agrees to help Maria once he sees that the painting is valued at $100 million. Together, they head off to Austria to discuss their options with the Austrian government, which has made some vague mentions of restitution for Holocaust survivors whose art, jewelry, and other valuables were confiscated by the Nazis. But neither Maria nor Randol really knows what they’re getting into, so they’re guided by an investigative journalist (the sadly underused Daniel Brühl, of “Rush”) who warns them of how difficult this is going to be: “Rightly or wrongly, she has become embedded in Austria’s identity,” he says of the painting of Adele. “She is the Mona Lisa of Austria. Do you think they will just let them go?”
What follows is a movie split between present-day legal wrangling, with Maria and Randol facing off against a decidedly unsympathetic Austrian government that keeps trying to discredit the Altmann claim on the paintings, and flashbacks to Maria’s life as a young newlywed (played by Tatiana Maslany, of “The Vow”) during the Nazi occupation of Austria, subject to increasing harassment and brutality because she and her family were Jewish. It’s the latter that shapes Maria’s resilience during the present day: the Austrians didn’t stand up for her family and instead stood aside while the Nazis either forced Jews out or killed them, and in the present day, the government is trying to cover up their complicit behavior by holding onto some foolishly romanticized notion of what it means to be “Austrian,” as defined by the “Woman in Gold” painting. It’s not about the money, Maria keeps saying, but about the opportunity for justice: “Her identity was stolen,” she says of her aunt. “People forget, you see, especially the young.”
All of this is unobjectionable—how could you not root for Maria and her supporters?—and it’s clear that Curtis and Campbell want to create a legal-thriller vibe with their numerous court scenes and Reynolds’s increasingly dramatic “Law and Order”-inspired moments. (His “I’m here to file a lawsuit against the Austrian government” is, admittedly, a highlight.) But to get there, the movie draws as many obvious lines as possible, making its character development undeniably simplistic and its script full of too-tidily-tied-together dialogue. Randol never seriously thought about the Holocaust, scoffing “that was over half a century ago” when Maria talks about never wanting to return to Austria, but taking her case is a way to make things right with his family history—and now he’s a better man! Maria has lived her life in anger and fear since leaving Austria, but to stand up for her family’s legacy, she’ll have to be brave, much like when Adele told her as a child, “One day you’ll have to stop being so timid, life will demand it of you”—and now she’s an advocate for justice! It’s not like wanting redemption or vengeance is a bad thing, but those motivations aren’t as simple as the film makes them seem.
Nevertheless, “Woman in Gold” gets its emotions right. You can’t help but get swept up, especially in the flashbacks with the affecting Maslany—in a scene during her wedding reception, her initial joy and almost-immediate panic during a frenzied dance sequence is a clear metaphor for times to come—and with every zinger from Mirren, who guilts Randol into eating homemade strudel, buys whiskey and cognac at the airport because it’s duty-free, and levels over-friendly Austrians with a glare when they try to speak to her in German: “I choose to speak English.” One of the final scenes, with her walking through her old home and encountering all of her passed-away family members in her imagination, is brutal but beautiful. “Woman in Gold” may cut corners in its storytelling, but Mirren, as always, elevates the material she’s given to empathetic heights.
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