This fascinating true story is strong enough to hold up against the formulaic Hollywood treatment, boosted by another riveting performance from Helen Mirren. She adds some badly needed prickly humour to the film, which continually resorts to unsophisticated sentimentality as it traces a remarkable series of real events. And it helps that the story has some intriguing things to say about both art and history.
It opens in 1998 Los Angeles, where Maria Altmann (Mirren) has discovered some documents in her late sister's belongings that refer to a beloved portrait of their Aunt Adele (Antje Traue in flashbacks). The problem is that the painting is Gustav Klimt's Woman in Gold, which is regarded as the "Mona Lisa of Austria" and held in pride of place in the national gallery. Since Austria has begun restoring art stolen from its citizens by the Nazis, Maria hires novice family-friend lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who quickly realises the futility of the case. But they travel to Vienna to begin the process, getting some help navigating the system from local journalist Hubertus (Daniel Bruhl). Sure enough, the Austrian government fights Maria at every step of the way.
The compelling argument in this film is that if Austria acknowledges that this national treasure was stolen, it implicates the government and the population in complicity with the Nazis. And that's something no one is willing to do. There's also of course the issue of greed, since Woman in Gold is worth $100 million. But Maria's simple question is why the painting's value or status matter when its true ownership is so clear. Director Simon Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell wisely dash through the series of hearings, court cases and appeals, while emphasising this undeniable fact of the case. Although this also simplifies most scenes into little more than "Nazis bad, Jews good". While the flashbacks to Maria's past are moving and informative, Randy's sideplots feel irrelevant and undercooked, featuring his pregnant wife (Katie Holmes) and sardonic boss (Charles Dance).
Continue reading: Woman In Gold Review