6.5 out of 10
Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann
Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg
Daniel Brühl as Hubertus Czernin
Katie Holmes as Pam Schoenberg
Tatiana Maslany as young Maria Altmann
Max Irons as Fredrick “Fritz” Altmann
Charles Dance as Sherman
Moritz Bleibtreu as Gustav Klimt
Frances Fisher as Mrs. Schoenberg
Tom Schilling as Heinrich
Allan Corduner as Gustav
Henry Goodman as Ferdinand
Olivia Silhavy as Elisabeth Gehrer
Justus von Dohnányi as Toman
Ludger Pistor as Wran
Stephen Greif as Bergen
In the late 1990s, as it attempted to reconcile its Nazi past, the Austrian government began the complicated process of determining which works it owned were illegally confiscated with a view to returning them to their original owners; right up until the owner (Mirren) of the country’s most famous painting piped up to say she would very much like her art back.
The draw of such story, filled with some of Hollywood’s favorite things – Nazis as villains and underdog David versus Goliath battles – is obvious, and has the benefit of being both interesting and potentially meaningful. The trap frequently comes in the forcing of such stories into the straightjacket of conventional form, making sure every piece is explained and each beat happens on cue, without care for how that impacts what was originally so compelling. More than one film, with its eye on the starry prize and not watching where it is going, has fallen to its death this way and Woman in Gold is a prime example why.
On the surface, Woman in Gold has all that it needs and more as it delves into the life of a charming Austrian expatriate who, like many Jewish-Austrian families, was forced to leave friends, family and belongings behind after the Anschluss ushered Nazism through the country’s front door. That unspeakable loss — so large it was difficult to believe even when it was happening and now long enough ago to lose its reality — is well symbolized by Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting – both its theft and its return.
A stirring palette of gold laid over the simple drawing of a pale, melancholic woman; it could be Maria’s life in a nutshell, as she struggles with hidden pain of her past, albeit with a never-ending Prussian pragmatism. Mirren is in fine form containing all of Maria’s conflicting emotion — her desire to take back her past at war with her wish to forget it — with an impish charm that keeps her character from becoming obnoxious, even when being used as a transparent plot device. That the film ever works at all is down almost entirely to her skill.
Because unlike Klimt’s painting, surface is all there is as Simon Curtis’ (My Weekend With Marilyn) film which — like the Austrian government’s approach to art restitution — is more interested in the appearance of doing right than actually doing it. Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Campbell squander much of the natural drama they have at hand in order to drag up easy pathos, undercutting most of his actors and keeping real conflict from developing.
Preferring to keep things ‘in the family,’ Maria seeks out legal advice from Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds), grandson of the famed and equally exiled composer and perfect stand-in for the people of the now who have lost contact with their past and need it back desperately. A theme Curtis drives home with giant, cartoon sized mallet the same as he does with the rest of the film, until Randol is left weeping at the side of Holocaust Memorial in Vienna where the reality of the past is finally driven home for him just in time for the third act.
Nor is he alone in that. Woman in Gold is a film which does not understand the meaning of “on the nose,” and thus tends to be so terrified that its points might be lost it forces them into actor’s mouths and down the audience’s throat. When Maria and company descend on Austria’s private records only to find that all documents relating to her family’s ownership of the painting have vanished, it’s not enough for her to realize the extent to which the Nazi’s tried to wipe she and her kind from history, a helpful journalist (Brühl) has to point blank say it just in case “show don’t tell” is too cumbersome for the modern audience.
It’s only when “Woman” returns to the past, tracing Maria’s escape from Austria, that it seems to come alive, taking advantage of beautifully-realized period elements and the natural tension of the Nazi menace. But if it works at all its because it easily developed and explained, but also harms Curtis’ attempts to delve deeper into Maria’s complicated feelings about her past as he tries to juggle past and present with overly explained symbolism and flat characters.
Along with Reynolds, most of the supporting players (and even occasionally Mirren herself) are wasted, showing up to provide just enough information to move the plot along or to put up a temporary roadblock without bothering with even a minutely human rationale. Randol changes his mind about continuing the case almost as often as Maria does and his wife only appears when he needs a new excuse to go back to his law practice in Los Angeles.
Though none of them get quite the treatment of the Austrian art minister who must stand as a modern villain in a film which has counterpointed him with the Nazis. Curtis et al. have ignored Shaw’s rule to allow the opponent to make his case and make it well. It’s fine for a film to have a point of view, but to make it the only point of view destroys conflict and destroys drama. The people opposing Maria are doing it because they are greedy and bad and must be hated – which works fine for revenge movies starring Liam Neeson, but less so for dramas about art restitution.
Thus, faced with the prospect that they might have aided and abetted Nazi art theft, the Austrian government chooses to fight tooth and nail against its former citizen, instigating a decade of legal maneuvering and a classic David versus Goliath battle. [It wasn’t really but this is a movie, not history].
The continued crash of that sort of simplicity against the complexities of reality keeps Woman in Gold from attaining its potential, proffering up meaning and history but delivering only the trite and predictable. Even the superior flashback sequences eventually fall hollow as the film prefers to focus on the Nazi’s rather than young Maria’s relationship with the frail aunt who sat for the painting and in partial memory of whom she is going to all this trouble.
The all-too-frequent result of these sorts of human stories coming to the screen is the replacement of the interesting material for unnecessary plot elements to keep the pace moving, to create a film trying to serve many masters but ultimately serving no one.