“Woman in Gold,” a cinematic glass of Chardonnay, pairs Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as an odd-couple team out to right an old Nazi wrong.
She’s Maria Altmann, 80-something and living quietly in Los Angeles, an immigrant since escaping Vienna at the brink of the second world war. Her wealthy family was dismantled, robbed and killed; the Nazis looted musical instruments, the silver and several now-priceless artworks by Gustav Klimt. One in particular, a gold-shellacked portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria’s aunt, looks like a fever dream inspired by episodes of “Pimp My Ride” — but has become, in one character’s words, “the Mona Lisa of Austria” since the war.
Reynolds is her lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, the guy who really did help Maria get her paintings back in 2006 after years of fighting against the Austrian government.
The ingredients, then, are all here for a safe and ennobling courtroom drama, which in essence “Woman in Gold” is, with a parallel line of flashbacks to pre-war Austria to round out the tale. For a Holocaust movie, it must get some credit for focusing on the lesser yet still monumental crimes against Europe’s Jews.
Austria as a state comes off looking quite the worse for it. So determined Austria was to cling to the big gold Klimt that it overlooked the glaring inconvenience that the painting was plucked off the walls of Maria’s family home in a flurry of glorified looting; Hitler ended up with one of her family’s paintings in his Swiss compound, and Goring got some of the jewels.
Maria and Randy offer every opportunity for them to say “our bad.” Instead, they cling to their spoils. And so the phrase “art restitution” gets a real workout in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s script, based on the two protagonists’ life stories.
There’s not an overabundance of subtlety in “Woman in Gold,” if only because there’s only so much room for nuance when you’re arguing against the criminal legacy of Nazism. Austria’s argument for keeping the portrait comes down, in a nutshell, to “yes, but we really want it and we’ve now had it for so long.” It’s up to Reynolds and Mirren to pull something fun or unexpected out of the rhetoric. Turns out there’s not much, in the abundant speeches they deliver, but the case is made quite clear, that stealing things and then keeping them while also killing people’s families is not the right side of history, for the record.
Director Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”) manages to wring most of the movie’s pathos out of the flight story of the younger Maria (played by Tatiana Maslany) and her family’s sudden dissolution. Rich though they were, something about being a refugee, fleeing without so much as a suitcase, has a way of laying a person low. Mirren is quietly commanding in her role, making sharp older-lady jokes and gently pushing her lawyer around.
Fairly early on, we bump against the outer limits of caring about Reynolds, however. Originally intrigued by the case because of its potential for a nine-figure settlement (the painting did later sell for $135 million) he finds himself drawn in after traveling to Austria and communing with his own dead relatives there. It’s a powerful journey, though it’s not really clear that Reynolds is the one to pull it off for us. He’s a perfectly pleasant face, capable of feats of plausible earnestness, and in all, a big reason the movie turns out about 30 percent too sugary.
At a certain level, it won’t matter, really. The film’s message is reaffirming and indisputable, and the story, intriguing enough. You’ll never look at “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” on a refrigerator magnet quite the same way again.