There are always drawbacks to adapting and projecting real life events onto the big screen. In the case of British director’s Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold (2014), it’s not just that an odd-couple legal dramedy about art restitution can’t live up to the fantastic story that its telling. Indeed, that it far less of an issue than its ultimately simplistic handling of its material; this is a film attempting to deal with multiple character arcs and various complementary, but different themes. These include memory, familial and cultural legacy, guilt, complexities of litigation, national identity and displacement. Sadly, in trying to juggle so much, it struggles to really pull off any single aspect.
Perhaps the most admirable element is Helen Mirren who does a sterling job as the spunky emigre Maria Altmann, balancing fierce resolution and a twinkle in the eye with a deeply held grief. She has understandably never been able to get over fleeing Austria for the United States during Anschluss and leaving her parents behind. At the death of her sister, she enlists the help of wet-behind-the-ears lawyer, and family friend, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to investigate her claim to the eponymous painting – actually called Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – for whom her aunt was Gustav Klimt’s model and her uncle the original owner. It was stripped from her family home by the Nazis during their annexation and has hung in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery ever since.
So Maria and Randy set off to Austria to confront old demons and butt heads with the bullish gallery owners in a road trip of discovery that is clearly aware of the success of Stephen Frears’ Philomena (2013). Along the way, Randy undergoes a change of heart that sees him commit to Maria’s cause after initially taking the job for the potential paycheck, while Maria struggles with the notions of whether justice can ever really be done. As with much of the film, though, neither of these transitions is especially compelling despite the actors’ best efforts – a little research suggests that Randy’s moral realisation is fictional, and hackneyed at that. Elsewhere, the decision is taken to flashback to 1930s Vienna and to show firsthand Maria’s flight. Whilst it does provide the narrative with some much needed drama – the sequence in which Maria and her husband (Max Irons) flea from chasing German officers is the standout of the entire film – it also fails to chime with the otherwise gentle and brightly hued tone.
Equally out of place is the presentation of almost every Austrian as staunchly despicable (there are effectively two exceptions to this) which doesn’t sit well within a film that is aiming for nuanced understanding of legacy and national guilt. A scene in which a man confronts the elderly Maria after a speech she gave on restitution and tells here that “not everything is about the Holocaust” may well be factually accurate, but feels unnecessarily tarring. But this is arguably just another example in which the film is grappling with weighty themes and not quite managing to quite wrangle them into submission. When emotion finally gets the better of Maria – and Mirren naturally acts it brilliantly – it doesn’t feel earned. Still, Woman in Gold is ultimately a worthy endeavour even when it is not entirely successful.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson