October 24, 2020

Woman in Gold (2015)
Grade: 66/100

Director: Simon Curtis
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Katie Holmes

What it's about. Struggling nice guy lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) is hired by elderly Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) to get back five priceless Gustav Klimt paintings that were confiscated by the Austrian government from Maria's family during the Nazi occupation of Austria. The two fight Austrian obstruction in a longshot legal battle that takes place over several years and in two countries.

Schoenberg has the support of his loyal wife Pam (Katie Holmes). Their cause is aided by Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl). Elizabeth McGovern shows up as a judge. Jonathan Pryce plays Chief Justice Rehnquist, as the case is eventually heard by the Supreme Court. Ben Miles plays wealthy art gallery owner Ronald Lauder.

Modern scenes are interspersed with flashbacks from 1938, with Altmann as a young woman played by Tatiana Maslany. She is newly married to Fritz (Max Irons), and her family frets as Nazis take over Austria and promptly subjugate the Jewish population. Maria and Fritz make a narrow escape to Switzerland. Other family members are less fortunate.

How others will see it. Undoubtedly aided by Helen Mirren as the lead, Woman in Gold was a considerable box office success by art house standards. But festival circuit awards were nonexistent. Mirren drew a few nominations, and the film was nominated by two liberal festivals, Cinema for Peace and the Political Film Society.

Today at imdb.com, the film has a respectable 53K user votes and an equally respectable user rating of 7.3 out of 10. Women over 45 grade it highest (7.8) and men under 45 grade it lowest (7.1). The user reviews applaud the movie, taking the side of the proud and courageous middle-class elderly woman over the cynical Austrian government and their stolen paintings.

There are few comments about the performances of Mirren and Reynolds. It is the story that people enjoy, driven by the eternal power of injustice as a movie theme.

Austria does not come off well here. Thus we have comments like "I'm an Austrian and I couldn't bear seeing this movie." Some viewers are bored, and the court proceedings have a David versus Goliath feel less compelling than Nazis stealing the family Stradivarius cello.

How I felt about it. Woman in Gold is a good movie. The story is largely accurate, except that Ryan Reynolds is much better looking than the actual Randy Schoenberg, we suspect that Maria Altmann did not make a surprise appearance during Reynolds' second trip to Austria, and the escape of newlywed Altmann and her husband from Austria is likely more dramatic than it really was.

The script is surprisingly good, given that the screenwriter's only prior film credits were as an actor. Simon Curtis' prior directing experience was primarily for television. Helen Mirren brings class to the production, and Ryan Reynolds is more like Clark Kent than the obnoxious character from his Deadpool movies.

There are problems, of course. There are clichés, such as the locked door and the key chain with many keys, reminiscent of Cinderella (1950). There's the tired joke about how stupid people confuse Austria with Australia, reminiscent of Dumb and Dumber (1994). Katie Holmes' water breaks, and she is completely calm while Reynolds becomes frantic. We've seen that before as well.

It bothers me that Schoenberg is portrayed as this working stiff, when he was born in privilege, and received 40% of the judgment, which came to $120 million dollars. Also, it seems that, aside from an endless parade of smug, condescending, cold-eyed officials, the only Austrian they meet is Hubertus Czernin, a character obsessed with the return of the Klimt paintings to Altmann to compensate for the shame of having a Nazi ancestor. Of course, a great many Austrians have a Nazi ancestor, since joining the Nazi Party was a survival tactic between 1938 and 1945.

Despite its problems, Woman in Gold gets a lot right. The horror of a brainwashed public terrorizing Jews never gets old, even if it has been done before, if it is done well. It helps that the actress playing the young Altmann (Tatiana Maslany) does look like a younger version of the old Altmann (Helen Mirren).

Helen Mirren is one of the few older actresses with her pick of roles. But she earns her place here. She is difficult, inconsistent, and sometimes even arrogant. Exactly how the script indicates she should be.

Daniel Brühl does well here. Still, I prefer the flashback scenes from 1938, which have suspense and injustice more dramatic than who gets five paintings that Maria Altmann had nothing to do with, except through inheritance.