I’m not sure why so many critics have taken aim at this movie, but it deserves a better break than it has gotten so far. Woman in Gold tells its remarkable true story with skill and sincerity. Helen Mirren is perfect in the leading role of Maria Altmann, the Austrian refugee who sues her homeland for the return of Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis took from her family at the outset of World War Two. The “woman in gold” in his famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I isn’t just a celebrated beauty: she was Altmann’s beloved aunt.
Ryan Reynolds is not the first actor who might come to mind to play her real-life lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (grandson of composer Arnold) but he does a creditable job as the young attorney and family friend who becomes as driven and obsessed as his client—possibly even more so—in pursuing this case.
If you already know the true story, from reading about it or seeing one of several documentaries that have been produced in recent years, the film might seem contrived or even superfluous. But director Simon Curtis and first-time screenwriter, playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell, have focused their attention on what matters most in this often-complex saga: the disruption and destruction of European Jewish lives in the late 1930s, the fact that so many who fled, like Altmann, built a new existence in America but never forgot the pain of leaving, and the reality that many countries would like to ignore the inconvenient truth of Nazi looting.
Maria’s childhood in Vienna is beautifully evoked in a series of flashbacks that recall her privileged existence, right up to her wedding on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938. In the contemporary scenes, she is (fortunately) not painted as a plaster saint: she’s a sharp-witted, saucy woman whose unpredictable emotionality adds a spiky note to her lawyer’s already-challenging agenda.
There are welcome and familiar faces in the supporting roles, including such fine actors as Daniel Brühl, Jonathan Pryce, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Katie Holmes, Antje Traue, Moritz Bleibtreu, and Allan Corduner. The production design and camerawork effortlessly take us back and forth in time as we experience Vienna in the 1930s and at the turn of the 21stcentury.
Mirren is utterly compelling in the leading role and makes the film worth seeing all by herself. Whether or not this dramatization lives up to the actual story is a debatable point, but I enjoyed Woman in Gold, and so did the audience with whom I saw the picture.