We begin with a portrait session. The artist gently prods the woman to move a little to the left, and asks her why she seems restless.
She tells him she is worried.
He inquires: About what?
The future, she replies.
The artist is the Austrian icon Gustav Klimt, and his subject is Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the painting that resulted was “Woman in Gold,” which was considered Austria’s “Mona Lisa” and became the object of one of the most intense and widely publicized custody battles in the history of modern art.
Simon Curtis’ “Woman in Gold” is a shamelessly sentimental fictionalization of this true story, but it’s a fascinating story nonetheless, beautifully photographed and greatly elevated by a brilliant performance from the invaluable Helen Mirren.
It’s the late 1990s. Speaking in a clipped and (to these untrained ears) believable Hungarian accent, Mirren is Maria Altmann, who narrowly escaped the Nazis and fled her native Vienna as a young woman, and has lived in the States for a half-century.
After her sister’s death, Maria discovers some paperwork indicating she may have a claim to a handful of Klimt paintings that have been hanging in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace since World War II — including “Woman in Gold,” which Austria considers a national treasure, though Maria loves it because it is a portrait of her own Aunt Adele, who was something of a second mother to her when she was a little girl.
A miscast Ryan Reynolds gives an earnest but uneven performance as Randy Schoenberg, a hapless young American lawyer whose grandfather was a famous Austrian composer. Maria hires Randy to investigate the provenance of “Woman in Gold” only because Randy is a family friend. Randy initially takes the case only after he learns the painting could be worth more than $100 million. (This being the late 1990s, it’s a hoot to see Randy utilizing the Alta Vista search engine to learn about the painting.)
Hmm, do you think the relationship between the pristine and somewhat chilly Maria and the bumbling, distracted Randy will change and grow as they embark on this journey together?
Maria and Randy bicker like a couple of mismatched cops in a buddy movie as they journey to Vienna to make their claim on the painting. In a series of effective albeit melodramatic flashback sequences, “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany gives a strong performance as the young Maria, who marries the dashing opera singer Fritz (Max Irons) in the palatial family apartment in Vienna just prior to the Nazi invasion.
Weeks after the wedding, Nazi banners are hanging in Vienna; Jewish businesses have been shuttered; the borders have been closed, and every piece of art and treasure in Maria’s family’s home has been confiscated. Eventually “Woman in Gold” wound up on the walls of the Belvedere Palace, but in the 1990s, Austria’s Art Restitution Board was at least willing to consider the claims of families who had artwork stolen from their homes all those decades ago.
But “Woman in Gold” was a special case. As Randy’s boss (Charles Dance) tells him, “Do you really think that a painting [so popular] it winds up as a refrigerator magnet will ever leave Austria?” For every triumph, Maria and Randy encounter another setback, with the score from Hans Zimmer and Martin Phipps manipulating the emotions each step along the way.
Familiar faces pop up for a scene or two. Katie Holmes plays the obligatory supportive (and of course pregnant) wife of Randy, who stands by her man even as their finances are drained and he becomes obsessed with the case. Elizabeth McGovern plays a judge. Jonathan Pryce plays a Supreme Court justice. Daniel Bruhl is a crusading Austrian journalist who seems to be one of the few citizens in his country on the side of Maria and her family.
The screenplay by Alexi Kaye Campell relies a little too much on “gotcha” exchanges at various hearings and proceedings, but there’s some sharp dialogue, especially in the scenes when Maria and Randy forge a lasting, familial friendship.
Of course the theft of even the most precious artwork pales in comparison to the unspeakable human suffering of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, as movies such as “The Monuments Men” and now “Woman in Gold” remind us, the systematic stealing of thousands upon thousands of important pieces of culture from families and nations was an obscene injustice.
This is a conventional but important story well told.