Woman in Gold is based on a true story, and only a handful of significant historical details have been changed. So why is it that so much of this movie feels so phony? The film boasts handsome production design and a talented cast, but almost every one of its big emotional moments somehow manage to feel unconvincing. This is the kind of thing that gives “Oscar bait” a bad name – the sort of pedigreed, professionally-crafted but entirely conventional historical drama that feels as if it was made for the sole purpose of winning awards.
In 1907, artist Gustav Klimt was commissioned to paint a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (played in flashbacks by Antje Traue, Man of Steel), a wealthy Viennese woman. Decades later, the painting would be stolen by the Nazis. It was recovered by the Austrian government after the war, and given a prominent place in a government museum. Now, the painting's rightful owner wants it back.
That would be Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, The Queen), who is Bloch-Bauer's niece. The painting held a prominent place in Maria's home during her youth, and she has a fairly solid legal claim on the work given that her father was the one who commissioned the portrait. However, the painting known as “Woman in Gold” has become so much more than a portrait. It's a significant piece of Austria's cultural identity, and valued at over $100 million. The Austrian government isn't just going to give something that valuable back because it's the right thing to do.
Enter Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern), a young lawyer who has struggled to make a name for himself in the legal profession. This would be frustrating for any attorney, but in Randy's case there's the added pressure of living up to his family name: his father was a powerful judge, and his grandfather was the great composer Arnold Schoenberg. Randy doesn't know much about art restitution law, but he listens to Maria's story and agrees to take a look at the case. Soon enough, Maria and Randy are off to Austria, where a local journalist (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) agrees to help them conduct a little cultural research.
After the exposition-heavy early scenes, the film transforms into three different types of movies. Unfortunately, only one of them is good. First, it's a cutesy buddy comedy between Reynolds and Mirren. The latter is a great actress who is seemingly capable of doing just about anything, but Woman in Gold too often reduces her to playing a tired riff on a “Miss Daisy”-style character – the sort elderly woman who is persistently stubborn in ways that are occasionally frustrating but mostly adorable. Meanwhile, Reynolds sighs, rolls his eyes and says “really?” a lot. The actors deserve better than this limp sitcom material.
Secondly, the film is an examination of a dark period in Maria's past, as she is forced to abandon her ailing father and flee Austria as the Nazis rise to power. Despite being given a conventionally gauzy, desaturated “nostalgia-fueled historical drama” look, this stretch of the movie provides most of the film's best scenes. The extended sequence in which Maria and her young husband (Max Irons, Red Riding Hood) attempt to escape from pursuing Nazi officers is a tense, gripping piece of suspense, and the collective cultural tension of the period is effectively captured.
Finally, Woman in Gold is a courtroom drama, and a disappointingly lackluster one at that. Perhaps recognizing that a case involving the legal ownership of a painting isn't the most inherently dramatic thing in the world, director Simon Curtis (who helmed the similarly tasteful-but-dull My Week with Marilyn) and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell overplay the significance of the case, attempting to make it a symbolic moral battle fought on behalf of everyone who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. That's a bit much, and the grandiose courtroom monologues are too generic to generate the sort of dramatic power they're aiming for. It doesn't help that Curtis employs cornball methods of upping the stakes even further, such as a third-act spat between Reynolds and Mirren that allows for a happy reconciliation to occur during the climax (a variation on a worn-out rom-com trope).
Reynolds has more screentime than anyone else in the movie, but he's also the film's biggest blank space. He doesn't bring any distinctive or interesting shades to the part, and the film itself doesn't do him any favors. He gets a few stereotypical scenes involving his stern employer (a woefully underused Charles Dance, Game of Thrones), a few stereotypical scenes of domestic drama in which his wife (Katie Holmes, Batman Begins) either scolds or encourages him and a few stereotypical scenes in which assorted supporting characters tell him that he's in over his head. All of this merely reinforces the impression that we've been saddled with the world's most generic leading man. Still, it should be noted that the dull writing has an effect on everyone: the usually-compelling Daniel Bruhl seems to be sleepwalking through his part, and Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) neglects to bring any flavor to his third-act appearance as a judge.
Still, this is the sort of staid, superficially “classy” drama that will undoubtedly appeal to a lot of older viewers – you know, the people who loved The Iron Lady and The Theory of Everything. The Weinstein Company more or less specializes in movies like this, and to be fair, in some cases the performances and/or direction are strong enough to overcome the film's blatant “prestige picture” status (The King's Speech, Philomena, The Imitation Game, etc.). When that happens, it's a lot easier to overlook the fact that such films more or less exist for the purpose of winning prizes. When it doesn't, the combination of tedium and self-importance overwhelms everything else. Woman in Gold is a very respectable movie, but that isn't the same thing as a good movie.
Woman in Gold
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 109 minutes
Release Year: 2015