Woman in Gold tells a worthwhile story in a wholly familiar and overly conventional way. It’s a film without particular insight on the Holocaust and a recognizable structure that goes through the motions of its real-life events more so than engages with them. The story focuses on a Jewish refugee from Hitler-occupied Austria who attempts to reclaim a piece of her family’s past that was once stolen. While that could provide for an original work regarding art’s importance in society and a new perspective on Nazi abuse, it instead wallows in lukewarm scenes that are tonally uncharacteristic and ultimately dull. That may be the biggest crime of the film, in that it handles such vibrant and illuminating topics with a vapid, empty approach. Director Simon Curtis, who previously directed the subtly entertaining My Week with Marilyn, handles an equally talented cast here including Ryan Reynolds, Tatiana Maslany, Daniel Bruhl, and Max Irons. Yet the story never rises above its historical drama clichés, feeling like a story that is all too similar to others in the genre rather than becoming its own spectacular vision.
The story focuses on Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a Jewish woman running her own clothing store in modern day Los Angeles. She’s recently mourning the loss of her sister, and finds out that a portrait of her aunt from her childhood has been held by the Austrian government for all of these years. When she realizes that her family has a rightful claim to the artwork since it was stolen during the Nazi regime, she teams up with Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a young lawyer who has made a few mistakes in the past but wants to start anew with his work. He has recently been accepted at a law firm due to his lineage, considering his father is famous and his grandfather was a famous composer. Since he wants to distance himself from his own past, he does not think much of it. He has to support his family, including his pregnant wife Pam (Katie Holmes), so the idea of taking risks with his new job should also not factor into his everyday life. Regardless, he takes on the Maria’s task and aims to return her aunt’s portrait for the sake of art and, obviously, for the hundreds of millions of dollars that the painting is worth.
Based on a true story, the film navigates the court proceedings that ensued and the dilemmas that each character faced as they became increasingly embattled by the process. It remains surprising, then, that the flashback scenes involving a younger Maria (played by Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany) and her lover, Fritz (Max Irons), are the most compelling moments in the film. There’s an extended period in the film’s second act where flashback scenes last upwards of ten minutes and include riveting moments involving the escape from Nazi grasps and the pursuit of heading to America in the wake of an impending genocide. A harrowing topic is handled with graceful composure from the writers, considering the extent of the time’s atrocities and the lengths to which these characters must go to escape the fate that many of their own faced. Yet the present day scenes remain so lifeless and inconsequential, considering the narrative is wholly predictable and tonally incomplete. The film jumps from comedy to historical drama to period drama to family melodrama without much of a thematic or character connection. Woman in Gold is full of exceptional ideas and features a heartfelt (as always) performance from Helen Mirren, but it dramatically falls flat underneath its uneven heft.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)