Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Antje Traue
Rated PG-13 for Some Thematic Elements and Brief Strong Language
They say that in movies, change is king. I'd give greater weight to conflict since there are more than a few movies about characters who don't change at all, but I can see their point. Change is king in "Woman in Gold," a David and Goliath story about a woman's attempt to reclaim a famous painting that is rightfully hers.
After the death of her sister, Maria Altmann (Mirren) finds a few letters regarding a painting of her aunt Adele (Traue) from pre-World War II. That painting is the so-called "Woman in Gold" by Gustav Klimt. Maria was extremely close to her aunt, so she would like the painting returned to her. Unfortunately for her, the painting is world famous (at least one character calls it "the Mona Lisa of Austria"), and the Austrian government, despite promises of reparation for art stolen by the Nazis, is prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep it. Maria's friend, Barbara Schoenberg (Frances Fisher) offers to have her son, Raoul (Reynolds), look into it. This is way above his pay grade (and he knows it), but he thinks she may have a case and they go to Austria to see if they can get it back. It's unsuccessful, but that doesn't stop them.
This is a safe, formula film for those people who like undemanding entertainment. The court case aspect of the film is predictable, so it's fortunate that director Simon Curtis spends more time with the characters. Specifically Maria. We learn a lot about her past and what her family meant to her. This is meant to give us an emotional investment in her attempt to reclaim the painting, and it works. The painting becomes more than just a work of art. More interesting is Maria's experiences before she fled Austria when the Nazis came. Her escape is legitimately suspenseful.
There is one thing that you can count on when Helen Mirren is in the cast, and that is that she will be wonderful. Mirren doesn't disappoint; she's terrific as the stubborn, plucky, but heartsick Maria. She may be a little young to play the role, but whatever. Less successful is Ryan Reynolds. He's not bad, but his range is limited. Reynolds is known more for his comic aptitude than dramatic skills, and there are a few examples here that explain why. His big scene with Mirren, when one of them wants to quit, rings false because he doesn't have the dramatic skills to pull it off. Daniel Bruhl appears as a helpful journalist, although I got the sense that many of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. Supporting work by Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons and the luminous Antje Traue is also good.
The film's first half is better than the second. The court case seems to go at two different speeds; slower at first than way too fast in the second. It's not that big of a deal, but it feels less fleshed out than I would have liked. The film's final scene, which is emotionally true and an example of good editing, is noteworthy. James Cameron did something similar to better effect in "Titanic," but it works well here.
The best way to ensure that we don't forget the past is to personalize it. Reading words in a news story is totally different than seeing the people on screen, even if they are dramatized. Steven Spielberg did that with "Schindler's List," and while "Woman in Gold" isn't in the same league (nor does it try to be), there were times when it has a similar effect.
"Woman in Gold" isn't a perfect movie, but it's definitely worth your time.