Woman in Gold (Simon Curtis, 2015)
In Woman in Gold, Helen Mirren plays Maria Altman, a Jewish refugee who fled Austria for America before the outbreak of World War II, never to see her family again. Many decades later, after the death of her sister, she enlists the help of inexperienced lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to help her reclaim artwork stolen from her family by the Nazis. Of greatest value is Gustave Klimt’s ‘Woman in Gold’, a painting of Maria’s cherished Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, which hangs in the Austrian State Gallery in Vienna. With the case spanning over a decade, Maria is forced to face her demons by revisiting Vienna, where painful memories of Nazi occupation resurface.
The film alternates between Maria’s past and present, with Tatiana Maslany (of television’s Orphan Black) portraying the young Maria. Although Helen Mirren acts as the major drawcard for the film, it is the flashback scenes which are the most engaging – at times full of suspense, and at others packing an emotional wallop. Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) successfully keeps the audience invested in Maria’s life story, even though we know she lives to tell the tale. Vienna looks beautiful in both past and present day, and a sumptuous score ups the drama. The scenes set in the present day – both in Los Angeles and Vienna – are comparatively dull up until the heavily sentimental ending. This is partly due to the dry nature of the legal process, even though this is somewhat an interesting aspect of the story.
Though quite different in subject matter, Woman in Gold feels heavily reminiscent of the recent Philomena, which also dealt with an older woman (in that case, Judi Dench) being accompanied by a younger man (Steve Coogan) to revisit a traumatic past. Perhaps the obvious comparison is the presence of great British Dames in the main roles, though it appears that screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell has opted for similarly humorous banter between the two main players. Here Helen Mirren makes quirky jibes about Randol’s slow driving, his dirty glasses, and his likeness to Sean Connery. While these are a nice touch, they don’t quite match those in Philomena which had a sweeter, more natural feel, quite possibly due to the less-glamourised pairing.
Perhaps the problem is in casting Helen Mirren, who is quite frankly too young for this role. At one point Randol tells his wife (Katie Holmes) that he fears Maria won’t live long enough to see the return of her paintings. This is just impossible to buy, because although they might have given her more of an old lady hairstyle, Mirren is quite clearly not the 94 year old woman she is portraying by the film’s end, but rather a healthy 69 year old. The ‘cute little old lady’ jokes just don’t sell for this reason.
The presence of Ryan Reynolds further demonstrates how much film studios love to Hollywood-ize a story. Google a picture of the real Randol Schoenberg and you’ll find more than a few physical discrepancies. He must be thrilled with his portrayal, in which he is afforded a full head of hair and oodles of sex appeal. Reynolds puts in a fine performance, but his casting seems way off.
To make a more favourable comparison, Woman in Gold does manage to surpass fellow art restitution film, The Monuments Men. While that film was bigger on many levels (bigger cast, greater stakes, broader focus) it may have aimed too high. Woman in Gold’s narrower focus results in a more personal film, and one that tugs on the heartstrings sufficiently. However, if it hadn’t compromised its artistic merits by making a blatant grab for commercial success through its casting choices, it may have been a better one.
This review was first published at Film Blerg