Woman in Gold tells an extraordinary story with the utmost ordinariness in style and structure. It uses what I fear will become the newfound Philomena cliche of a stubborn, moody old white lady getting helped by a square, middle-aged white man who grows to appreciate a walk of life he apparently never even knew existed before. The only difference was Philomena worked because of strong chemistry between its leads and a story that was told in an impacting manner, articulating the core of the events within proper emotional and narrative boundaries. Woman in Gold is what happens when all of that is traded for what looks to be a "collect the check" job on all fronts, where everyone involved just seems more concerned with collecting their pay rather than telling a story with the significance and heart it not only bears but deserves.
The film revolves around Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a Jewish refugee living in Los Angeles, who seeks the help of a lawyer named Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to recover Gustav Klimt's iconic painting of her aunt, known as Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer I. During the time of World War II, the painting was confiscated by the Nazis and now hangs in a museum in Vienna, Austria, where it is as renowned as the Mona Lisa. Maria and Randol travel to Vienna to try and convince the Austrian government to allow Maria to claim the painting, but the government has made it virtually impossible for anyone who isn't wealthy beyond their wildest imagination to sue or challenge the government. Eventually, the two return to America, following a breathless bout of walking in circles, to discover that they can sue the Austrian government on American soil due to the painting being licensed for commercial use in America. What entails is an exhausting legal battle that is taken all the way to the Supreme Court.
Woman in Gold
Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl
1 April 2015
Steve's Grade: D+
Woman in Gold's first immediate problem is it can't do anything without oversimplifying. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, Maria meets Randol, she tell him the story of her aunt and Klimt's painting, and they are off to Vienna in a flash. The legal battle that apparently takes so many months to progress and move to the Supreme Court is covered within about five minutes in montage and, when we do see glimpses inside the courtroom, it's the same kind of artificial, theatrical environment we've grown accustomed to in American movies. Finally, every wall the characters run into in their quest to obtain what is rightfully theirs always seems to pose a way out that's almost too clean to exist. Every way around the Austrian government is portrayed as a flash-in-the-pan, revolutionary moment that makes you wonder why these two bright individuals didn't think of that before they started (IE: the cost of suing the Austrian government being in the millions - shouldn't they have known that as a "worst case scenario" event?).
It's also worth noting that it's impossible for a dynamic to be achieved between both Mirren and Reynolds because screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell doesn't write a line of dialog that's purpose is to paint both of these individuals as characters and not narrative vessels. Every conversation these two have between one another is about the case or about the history; none of dialog works to humanize either party and it isn't until the end we realize that due to how little we're impacted by the outcome of it all. This gives Woman in Gold a dreary and dull personality, and makes it even more disappointing to see two great actors squandered for the sake of persistent plot progression.
Woman in Gold is one of several films to be released over the last two years that concerns art, the creation of art, and to whom the art should belong to. Last year, George Clooney's The Monuments Men was a misguided effort, but found success in at least detailing the process of obtaining valuable works that the Nazis had stolen, a subject that's only now really circulating into the mainstream. In addition, we also had Tim Burton's Big Eyes, which, while a bit different, found itself infusing style and visual flair into a story that probably wouldn't have clicked had no personality been injected into the screenplay and the visual aesthetic. Woman in Gold is another film that takes a hugely important topic and squanders it, and, now more than ever, we need not only another film on Nazi art thieves, but a good one at long last.