Based on the real-life story of octogenarian Jewish refugee Maria Altmann whose case opened doors for other victims of the Holocaust to regain what is rightfully theirs, Woman in Gold is a cross between Philomena and The Monuments Men, combining what was good about the former and what should have been in the latter.The story is inspiring and heartfelt with good performances, though sometimes it doesn’t always know what it wants to be, but succeeds in many aspects.
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) is an Austrian-Jewish refugee living happily in Los Angeles, her past behind her in the rear-view mirror, or so she thinks. But her past quickly comes back to haunt her when she hires the help of down and out lawyer Randol Shoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her retrieve the painting by Gustav Klimt of Maria’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was acquired illegally by the Nazis and then hung in an Austrian art museum for decades before Altmann sought legal rights and ownership back.
Altmann and Shoenberg work closely with Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czemin (Daniel Brühl). Czemin, after investigating the Austrian Gallery in Vienna, was the one who opened the doors for Altmann’s case after having discovered the false claim that Klimt’s painting was donated to the gallery. Seeking retribution in the present, we’re also privy to Altmann’s past history (the younger Altmann is played by the wonderful Tatiana Maslany) and the injustices her family faced.
After a plethora of Nazi-themed films, Woman in Gold is most definitely a breath of fresh air, simply because of its ability to balance the history of Nazi theft, the importance of justice, and the difficulty for everyone involved to be able to let things go. Director Simon Curtis gives the film a very “we can do this” kind of attitude. Peppered with glimpses into the past, the hardship endured, Curtis only uses the past to inform what is happening with characters in the present (or in their present, since it takes place in the ’90s).
However, sometimes the transitions in the timeline slow the pacing between the then and now. The narrative is torn between being a courtroom drama, which it very slowly builds to and has moments of excitement within its story line, and being a tale of World War II Austria. And while both of these stories are intriguing and unique in their own way, there are times when the flashbacks to the past don’t align and feel tacked on, causing the film not to flow as well as it should.
Helen Mirren is strong and vulnerable in her role as Maria Altmann. She’s unwavering yet doubtful, scared yet stubborn. Her character compliments Ryan Reynolds, who is really turning his career around in roles such as this. Reynolds is the lawyer who’s lost his mojo having tried to open his own law firm and failed. The two are kindred spirits since their families share the same history.
And while the pair of them work well together, it is Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria who steals the show. Her quiet exuberance and steadfastness light up every scene she’s in and these characteristics are what make the elder Maria more believable. Daniel Brühl is sophisticated and justice-driven, his character the reason behind all the events in the film. Katie Holmes isn’t anything inspiring, her role as Shoenberg’s wife small and supporting but nothing memorable.
There are moments when Woman in Gold is powerful, quietly so. There is no overabundance or showy nature to the film, and for that alone, Curtis is successful. The film occasionally struggles with pacing and transitioning between its timeline and its events, but is still capable of telling a story of justice and humanity. The lead cast keeps the film going, and the final scene with Mirren standing among her memories is at once beautiful and nostalgic. Ultimately, Curtis does well with what he has and gives us strong moments peppered with a highly intriguing story.