Screening at the Berlin Film Festival in a city that wears the scars of World War II in every rebuilt street and solemn memorial comes Woman in Gold, a reminder that there’s some way to go yet to recover from that terrible period. A glossy Hollywood drama, part legal procedural, part historical tragedy, it follows the efforts of an ageing Jewish widow in Los Angeles to get back a painting stolen by the Nazis.
This is no Monuments Men postulating on the value of art and the importance of protecting it. The Woman in Gold of the title refers to the famous painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt. Looted from the home of the family that commissioned it by the Nazis when they marched into Vienna, it ended up in the Belvedere Gallery in the Austrian capital where the Government denies suggestions it resides illegitimately.
Based on the true story of the case brought by Maria Altmann, niece of the woman in the painting, the film begins after Austria announces a commission to assess historical claims of ownership. Maria (Helen Mirren), now living in California, decides to reopen the case with the aid of young lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). Although his own family had to flee Vienna, he agrees to help when the $100m price tag comes to his attention, only to find himself sucked into the cause.
Like Randol’s journey from dollar sign to impassioned activism, something happens to Simon Curtis’ film along the way. It finds its subject matter and stops going through the motions. Parallel narratives, one following Maria’s quest to pursue justice in Austria and America, the other tracing the final days of the family in the home they were forced to leave, take shape. Curtis’ detours into the past are particularly effective. Even if we’ve seen Nazis marching down the streets flanked by cheering crowds while Jews are stripped and humiliated before, it has not lost its power or importance.
In the present, Mirren puts in a sprightly performance echoing Judi Dench in Philomena. She gets a number of decent lines, often while mothering Randol. It’s not anywhere near her finest work but its effective. Randol’s arc is also well acted by Reynolds, and there’s strong support elsewhere from Daniel Brühl as a friendly investigative journalist, and a number of high profile cameos, most notably Jonathan Pryce as a benevolent judge.
There’s nothing original on display here. It’s typical Harvey Weinstein fare trying to combine credibility with wide appeal. It falls short of lasting impact, but even though Woman in Gold aims unashamedly at the tear ducts, it earns the right to do so with its impassioned approach.
Director: Simon Curtis
Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl
Runtime: USA, UK