Take a complex legal issue like the provenance of an art object, then throw in Helen Mirren and the Nazis as the hero and villains, and you have the dull and simplified tale of Woman in Gold.
Gustav Klimt’s spectacular painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I far outshines this pedestrian movie about the legal battle waged by Maria Altmann (Mirren), the niece of the portrait’s subject, to regain possession of the work which was seized from her family by the Nazis during their takeover of Austria. Based on true events, the film recounts the process by which Altmann, long since relocated to California, and her inexperienced lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), grandson of the famous Austrian composer, fought in the Austrian and American courts to win back that painting, along with five other Klimts. With history having already foretold the case’s conclusion, Woman in Gold draws its narrative tension from Altmann’s flashbacks to her gilded childhood and flight from the Nazi horrors.
Mirren’s performance, as always, is beyond reproach, even though the character’s hauteur makes her a somewhat disagreeable person. Reynolds, however, as the young lawyer in over his head seems reflective of the actor’s lack of dimension in the movie. Many good supporting actors (Holmes, Pryce, and Fischer, for starters) appear fleetingly; however, more interplay from them might have helped make Woman in Gold a more human story than that of evil Nazi looters and Austrian bureaucrats versus good Jewish patrons of the arts and vindicators of family heritage. The story of the provenance of the stunning Klimt painting embedded in gold leaf, which the Austrians’ came to regard as their country’s Mona Lisa, is more complicated than this screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campbell will allow. Nevertheless, the flattening of the legal issues is not what sunders Woman in Gold, it’s the story’s wan drama and fixed characterizations.
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