Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, but fiction also has the power of taking surprising, riveting true stories and flattening them into overly familiar tales. Which brings us to “Woman in Gold,” a film that could have been a stirring saga of family pain and artistic restitution but instead feels like a movie you’ve already seen more than once and didn’t care for all that much the first time.
Director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”) and first-time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell take everything unpredictable and moving about this real-life struggle and break it down into obvious and easily-digestible components, as though they were adding water to packets marked “underdogs against the system,” “sharp older lady befriends quiet young man” and “Nazi occupation of Europe.”
Helen Mirren, the one reason to see this film at all, stars as Maria Altmann, a woman who emigrated to Southern California decades earlier after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. She and her husband managed to flee, but they had to leave behind family, friends and treasured objects, chief among them Gustav Klimt’s legendary “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.” (Adele, played here by Antje Traue, was Maria’s aunt.)
Learning that Austria is making some efforts at restitution to those whose properties were seized by the Nazis, Maria engages attorney Randy “Randy” Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her in her quest to reclaim the painting. Randy, having just landed a job at a prestigious L.A. firm after his attempts to go into business for himself failed, isn’t exactly in a position to take on any extracurricular work, but when he discovers the painting is worth around $180 million, he convinces his bosses to let him take the case.
Returning to Austria dredges up painful memories for Maria: the beauty of growing up in a household where artists and intellectuals visited as well as the horror of the occupation, when Jews were stripped of property, mocked in the street and ultimately carted off to the camps. Randy, the grandson of legendary composer Arnold Schoenberg, also lost Viennese relatives in the Holocaust, but neither the film nor Reynolds’ performance gives us much of an idea of what impact that has on him, although he does go through the requisite shift of believing in Maria’s cause and no longer caring about the money. (Maria doesn’t even want the painting for herself; it’s justice she seeks.)
The Austrians’ efforts at restitution are mostly lip service, per local journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), who happily provides some inside help to Maria and Randy to state the case that the painting was stolen from Adele and not, as the authorities argue, bequeathed by her to a local gallery. The legal battles against the Austrian government take our plucky heroes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before they ultimately face off in a Viennese arbitration hearing.
You can pretty much see every story beat coming, from Maria briefly giving up on her seemingly impossible quest, to Randy’s wife (Katie Holmes, badly underused) lamenting that he’s going to lose his job when they’ve got another baby on the way. Even the flashbacks to the Nazis (featuring “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany as young Maria) feel like an amalgam of moments we’ve seen in decades’ worth of other, better films about the Third Reich.
(And lest we’re ever unclear about how we should feel about any plot twist, the score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer hammers it home with very little subtlety.)
Mirren’s work is the standout here, making Maria proud, defiant, bitter, sad and resourceful in turn but always an empathetic human being. It’s a marked contrast to see her and Reynolds side by side – you can see her creating her character from the inside out, while he’s working from the externals (starting with an oversize pair of eyeglasses doing most of the heavy lifting) inward. Elsewhere, Reynolds has superior comic timing and is capable of genuine screen charisma, but in “Woman in Gold” you can see the effort, and he never registers as anything but an actor acting.
Unless you’re a Helen Mirren completist, “Woman in Gold” offers nothing that a documentary or even a long magazine article about Altmann and Schoenberg’s triumph couldn’t have captured better. For a film about a timeless painting, it’s surprisingly artless.