Maria Altmann spent over a decade in legal conflict with the Austrian government trying to recover the priceless Gustav Klimt paintings that the Nazis had looted from her family at the onset of the Second World War, the most famous of these being ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I’, the titular “Woman in Gold” of this film based on Altmann’s life.
That Adele Bloch-Bauer’s non-legally binding testament did request that the Klimt paintings be hung in the Austrian gallery makes Altmann’s exploitation of legal loopholes seem slightly disingenuous, though the principle on which she would seek remuneration is understandable. That she sold the five paintings, less than six months after they were returned, for a total of $325 million, suggests however that she was far less sentimental than this film would have you believe.
That this film is all sentiment means that it ignores such questions, or dismisses them quickly with a concluding epilogue in small font before the credits.
The problem is not that the film is completely unmoving, but that it is moving in a very calculating, self-consciously cinematic sort of way, where the workings of the filmmakers are all too visible and grandiose string-sections swell on cue to accentuate feelings. This is life reduced to a screenwriter’s structural formula, with key soundbites that sound made for a cinema trailer: ‘This is like a James Bond film, and you’re Sean Connery!’ Helen Mirren’s Altmann tells Ryan Reynolds at one point. Not surprisingly, this is in the trailer. Formula can work, but its effectiveness is immediately diminished when the viewer is made so aware of it.
A portion of Woman in Gold is told in flashbacks to Nazi Germany, where Maria is forced to leave her family and flee with her husband Fritz, eventually to the United States. That the flashbacks are more exciting, more interesting than the present-day rigmarole of the legal case is a problem; so is the fact that they ultimately lead nowhere. Essentially you have two films running parallel, and though they inform each other, it is difficult to decide which of the two is more superfluous.
There is something very Legally Blonde-esque about Ryan Reynold’s performance as Altmann’s fish-out-of-water lawyer Randol Schoenberg, which may or may not be appropriate to a film based around Holocaust incidence. Katie Holmes plays his wife, and is completely redundant: she just hangs around looking stoned and offering encouragement. Helen Mirren is always excellent, but she may here be a victim of her own ubiquity: as good as she is at playing an Austrian Jew, wearing her hairdo from The Queen makes it difficult to forget that she is English Helen Mirren nevertheless. It is much the same problem as Tom Cruise playing a German SS officer, or John Wayne as a Roman centurion.
The biggest problem with Woman in Gold is that it uses The Holocaust as an automatic signifier for meaning. Granted, it is an intrinsic part of the story. The problem is that the film wants to use The Holocaust to hide its own flaws by generating reverence. This is exploitative at worst, and lazy at best. It may be done all the time, but the respect of people for those atrocities should not be a default excuse for justifying average filmmaking.
All in all, Woman in Gold is reasonably entertaining, with several affecting parts, well carried by Mirren in the lead. It is unfortunate that those parts do not all coalesce as well as they might, because the subject matter itself is interesting, and it is the execution and reduction to run-of-the-mill fodder which does its high potential a disservice.
THE REEL SCORE: 4/10