Earlier this week I got an email from reader Christine with the subject line “Please go see a movie you like”, and the message was, “I have to say I feel awful for you, you haven’t seen a movie (at least reviewed on LaineyGossip) you like in months and months.” That’s not entirely true—I liked Cinderella. But yeah, it’s been an exceptionally rough first quarter. The movies through March and April have been, on the whole, January bad. Which is why, even though it’s not perfect, I sort of enjoyed Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. It’s a middling drama that’s too sentimental for its own good, but it’s just engaging enough to hold interest, and I didn’t walk out of the theater hating life or upset at anything. So that’s a win.
Woman in Gold is based on the true story of Jewish refugee Maria Altmann’s quest to reclaim art stolen from her family by Nazis during World War II. Altmann sued the Austrian government, which would not return the paintings, all the way to the Supreme Court, and she eventually was awarded her family’s heirlooms. The painting at the center of the movie is Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the apex of Gustav Klimt’s golden phase. It’s a luminous painting that seems to generate its own light and even the reproductions in the film dominate the screen—if you ever get to the chance to see Adele I, currently residing at the Neue Galerie in New York, DO. It’s breathtaking.
Anyway, the Maria Altmann’s story is quite compelling. Adele Bloch-Bauer herself intended for the painting to be donated upon her husband’s death to an Austrian museum—the basis of Austria’s reasoning for keeping the painting—but then the Nazis happened and he fled Austria, leaving behind his art collection, which he willed to his nieces and nephews, including Altmann. Generally I think if provenance can be proved you give the f*cking looted Nazi art back, but I can see where Austria thought they had case. The problem for the movie is that watching people argue for two hours is not very interesting. Screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell and director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) attempt to solve this by including flashbacks to young Maria, played by Tatiana Maslany, during her frantic flight from Austria when the Nazis invaded.
Maslany is as good as she always is, and enlivens what is otherwise a dry-bordering-on-boring film. I’m enough of an art nerd to care about this story, but if you’re not into art and/or legal drama, you might actually fall asleep. I can’t help but think the movie would have been better as a biopic of Altmann’s WWII-era life that included the legal case fifty years later as a post-script. Courtroom drama is really hard to mount successfully on film—you need super charismatic actors to pull it off, because otherwise it’s just talking heads with a limited number of angles to create visual interest. Unfortunately for Gold, Ryan Reynolds as lawyer Randol Schoenberg isn’t nearly charismatic enough. Reynolds’ strength is his wit and comic timing, and a courtroom drama doesn’t call for much of that. He’s miscast, and woefully outclassed by Helen Mirren, even when she’s just sitting silently next to him.
But Mirren is flawless, in turns feisty and dignified, and she elevates mediocre, paint-by-numbers biopic material into something moderately engaging. It’s really too bad when the story shifts into courtroom mode because then Reynolds takes over and you can feel the charm draining from the film. But, on the whole, Woman in Gold is decent. It’s not the most exciting or all-around best effort, but it gets its job done well enough to tolerate. It actually reminds me of RDJ’s The Judge—except those courtroom scenes work—in that the central performance is good enough to justify the endeavor. Mild praise, I know, but praise nonetheless.
Attached - Reynolds and Mirren at the Woman in Gold premiere and photocall in Berlin in February.