“Despite the employment of a handsome visual motif and an intelligently well-tuned cast, it’s disparagingly toothless.”
by Ken B.
To his credit, director Simon Curtis makes a lot of good decisions in Woman in Gold. However, he makes a nearly equally high number of not-so-good ones as well. The movie holds itself as prestigiously mounted, and its plot could be compared to a merge between the subject matter of The Monuments Men and the structural devices of Philomena. Like the other two, it’s based on a true story – one that stretched over sixty years and partially culminated in an internationally invested Supreme Court case (Republic of Austria v. Altmann – you know, that thing where it’s you against a whole country). But despite the employment of a handsome visual motif and an intelligently well-tuned cast, it’s disparagingly toothless and is never able to offer more than a perfunctory, forgettable, and bland depiction of the events within.
Those events are ones which concern Austrian American Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren as an older woman, Tatiana Maslany in flashbacks). She came to the United States in 1938 with her husband Fritz (Max Irons), running from the ever-tightening vise that the Nazis were placing on Central Europe, and since they were Jewish, the two of them barely managed to escape. Sixty years later, Maria is a widow living in Los Angeles. She runs a small shop and is going over the possessions of her recently deceased sister. Inheriting boxes and boxes of belongings, stacking up in her home, her interest is renewed one particular family memento. It’s a painting of Maria’s aunt, created in 1907, bathed in gold colors. Possessed by the Nazis, it was given to the Austrian government after the war, and it has remained in Vienna ever since. Maria knows that the painting’s current ownership was the result of those illegal actions, and with the help of her good friend’s son, lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), she travels back to her country of birth for the first time in over a half-century to fight the legal system and attempt to have the painting returned to her family.
In Republic of Austria v. Altmann, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which allows an American to sue a foreign nation, applies retroactively, and therefore Altmann’s lawsuit against the Austrian government was valid, even though the actions which she sued over took place before the enactment of the law. The case itself provides an interesting framework on the legal immunities of governments, and the background of the case is truly fascinating stuff. Maria Altmann’s life story is very much adaptable to film. However, Woman in Gold is hardly the one we need. Curtis has a long body of work under his belt and guides the production with professionalism, but Alexi Kaye Campbell’s screenplay, while never egregiously bad, lacks a punch or emotional vein that feels sufficiently genuine. It becomes mechanical, with a present-past-present-past rhythm that is rustic by itself but does little to evade the 108 minute film’s conventional blankness, both within its own borders and from the perspective of the subgenre it lives in.
Helen Mirren delivers a fine performance, as you would expect, mixing early elegiac apprehension with later confident conviction. Her costar, Ryan Reynolds, despite being at the tail end of buckets of negative criticism about some of his less than depthful (and good) work over the years, is able to handle the material with convincing ability and can hold his own with Mirren without feeling completely sunken in the veteran actress’ shadow. Indeed, Woman in Gold doesn’t disappoint because of its acting, but rather because of a lack of substance, a reluctance to embrace a more difficult or subversive treatment of a complex story in exchange for a disappointingly blasé execution that leaves much to be desired.