by Philip Price
“Woman in Gold” is a perfectly fine film. It is as competent as it is generic. The issue with the film though is that it so clearly wants to be more than that. It has a sense of needing to feel important based on the origins of its story when, in reality, the fashion with which it’s told and the narrative structure it’s delivered through make it appeal as little more than light, afternoon fluff with only a slight edge in existing over something that is purely melodramatic. There is nothing wrong with being no more than an afternoon distraction or even a slight piece of information that serves to highlight little known aspects of major events we’ve heard about time and time again, but ”Woman in Gold,” while recognizing a number of themes dealing with mortality, isn’t the heavy handed drama it seems to want to be or thinks it is. And so, while director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”) and first-time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell may or may not have been aiming for one thing by casting Helen Mirren in a role so perfect for Helen Mirren it’s almost cliché to have her actually play it and doing the opposite with Ryan Reynolds as he plays against type while dealing with a story that involves Nazi’s, it would of course seem one would have the perfect formula for a pre-packaged Oscar contender. What Curtis and Campbell have actually delivered though is ironically something largely opposite the heady and often too artsy for mainstream movie-goers the Academy does nominate in delivering a by-the-numbers account of a true story that both rouses the human spirit and will no doubt be appreciated by older audiences for its clean sense of class and respect for history. More times than not it is the straightforward, fluff-type films that serve ones interests better and for that, ”Woman in Gold” has nothing to be ashamed of simply because it doesn’t reach the heights it seemed manufactured to scale. I’m not necessarily saying this is a film worth seeking out, but it definitely isn’t a bad option if you’re looking for something to take your grandparents to this weekend.
From the opening scene in which we are introduced to the subject who would come to be known as the titular “Woman in Gold” there is discussion of the future. There is talk of what it means to become one with the time you live and having no choice but to come to terms with that. It’s not something we typically think of on a regular basis given most of us tend to believe the world revolves around us anyway, but through Adele’s (Antje Traue) eyes it is not so much about being immortal or living forever or even being unable to accept the time in which her life was given to her, but rather what she will be remembered for long after she’s gone, if at all? Adele, who married into a wealthy Jewish family located in Austria never had children of her own, but was lucky enough to live with her husband’s brother and his wife who had two girls. The youngest of which is Maria. Maria, while forming something of a connection with her Aunt Adele was never given enough time to really know her. Tragically, the woman so concerned with her legacy died young leaving her niece to come to know her through the artist Gustav Klimt’s painting of her. In the midst of World War II Hitler and his Nazi soldiers stole countless pieces of art along with their more devastating crimes forcing a young Maria (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband Fritz (Max Irons) to flee to America. Flash forward to 1998 and the Austrian government finally beginning to make restitution for the crimes against those during Hitler’s reign and you have yourself a film. Maria (Mirren) now elderly and living in Los Angeles hires a friend of the family’s son, Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds), who is a lawyer, to help her claim what is rightfully hers. Altmann seeks this restitution out not for the money (though it’s worth a pretty penny), but for justice to finally be served and, in many ways, for her to feel a final sense of acknowledgement and amendment from her country for what it did to her family and her faith.
The story is clearly captivating and there is no lack of trying by either the actors or the production team to make something to match that description in terms of its film representation. The co-leads in Mirren and Reynolds are both in this for the long haul. You can feel the two of them somewhat attempting to capture the odd couple relationship that made ”Philomena” such an under-the-radar, but undeniably great film a couple of years ago. This isn’t to say there isn’t any chemistry between the two as both are so inherently charming it would be impossible for there not to be. Because the film switches so often between the present story of Reynolds and Mirren’s characters attempting to gain the rights to the paintings and young Maria’s life in Austria and up through her escape to America we never become as invested in the more present tale despite it seemingly being the bigger focus for Curtis. The flashbacks, shot in a distinctly different color palette so as to let us know it’s the ‘40s, inadvertently become the more interesting parts of the film because they are inherently filled with more tension. Relying heavily on Maslany to carry the weight of the narrative in the flashbacks she embodies a young version of Mirren nicely and creates the connection between her extended family that is necessary for us to feel the importance and weight of what Mirren’s actions are based on. There is always the underlying question of how earnest Mirren’s Maria actually is given the worth of the paintings she is seeking (Ronald S. Lauder would eventually purchase it from Altmann for $135 million) which isn’t necessarily great for the mindset the movie hopes its audience takes as it consistently pushes the throughline that the point of Maria’s case is more for justice than anything else. For the most part, I bought into Maria’s claims, but again, this trust is mainly built on the sympathy the flashbacks are able to provide rather than anything outlined in the present storyline.
All of that said, the most interesting aspect of ”Woman in Gold” is that of the consistent references to mortality and what it means to live on if not in life, but through remembrance. It is a hard fact to accept that most of us will be forgotten eventually, but from the opening moments there is a nervousness within the film around time continuing to pass and our inherent inability as humans to keep up with it. This is felt most prominently by Adele in her short time on screen, but her sentiments clearly pass onto her niece as her sole objective in the film is not only rectify the wrong that was done to her by her home country, but to maintain a relationship she held dear that was lost too soon. It’s almost to say that because almost everything of her childhood was eradicated from history by the home she thought she could trust she sees it as a kind of rightful revenge to be given the chance to claim what is truly belongs to her family. She is most certainly in a position to feel that way, but more than this it comes to light that she is somewhat fooling herself into atonement for leaving her parents behind. Lines such as, “They can take my possessions, but not my pride!” are uttered and somewhat devalue the effective statements and actions made elsewhere. Overall there simply isn’t enough in the way of substance behind these philosophies of changing life experiences as time passes to give way to a fully substantial movie. For instance, there is intended to be a major emotional shift in Reynolds character a little under halfway through the film to serve as his motivation for continuing to chase the case of reclaiming Maria’s paintings, but like the film itself it’s never as profound as it should be. This isn’t any fault of Reynolds, but more of the script for not better clarifying where this change of heart really originates. Reynolds is actually much better here than he will get credit for as he is so clearly trying to construct a career renaissance (see ”Captive,” ”The Voices” and the upcoming ”Mississippi Grind” and ”Self/less”) that just isn’t taking off. Ultimately, ”Woman in Gold” is about how long one should press the past before letting it go in which the answer seems to be never. But like everything in this film the conclusion comes down on the side of acceptable rather than riveting.