Woman in Gold is partly a legal drama, partly a film about the lead up to and fallout from the Holocaust, and partly a vehicle for Helen Mirren to play the sassy underdog. It’s ultimately forgettable. Mirren plays Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish widow living in Los Angeles. After the death of her sister, she finds some letters which give her cause to contact her friend’s lawyer son, Randol Schonberg (Ryan Reynolds).
Originally Randol is frustrated with having to deal with this weird old lady but eventually realises she has a very rare case that could potentially be life changing. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, is the woman featured in Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting which became known as Woman in Gold. Maria’s uncle commissioned the portrait from Klimt and it hung in the family’s Viennese home until it and everything else was taken by the Nazis. Maria and her husband manage to escape Nazi-controlled Vienna and make it to America. The film is primarily concerned with the story of the legal battle between Maria and the Austrian government for whom the painting is very nationally significant, having been hung in the Belvedere Gallery since it was taken. The painting is now worth over one hundred million dollars.
The film lives or dies on the audience really caring about Maria getting the painting back from the Austrian government, who are represented as unceasingly miserly and evil. The film uses many different tools to achieve this and yet it failed. That this reasonably well off woman is going to become a multi-millionaire is, with all due respect to her suffering, not the most interesting or emotional story about this time period.
The most effective scene in the film is the scene of Maria and her husband escaping Austria, which is shot like a Cold War thriller. It was genuinely exciting but it made the modern scenes seem especially dull. Mirren’s constant wisecracks made Altmann seem insufferable rather than endearing. The film is paced rather poorly, with build-ups and payoffs coming at disjointed times. The use of the inherent and incomparable emotion of the holocaust to make us feel good about Altmann getting this family heirloom back (which she immediately sells) left me with an uneasy feeling. It is not a terrible film, and there are some things to like, but overall it was by the numbers and a bit of a drag.
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