No matter how good an actress or actor is - and I venture we all agree Helen Mirren is very good - you can't expect a home run in every single movie, Such is the case with Woman in Gold, British TV director Simon Curtis' follow-up to the entertaining but disposable My Week with Marilyn: it's a strictly by-the-numbers prestige job custom-tailored for the audience Harvey Weinstein worked so hard to schmooze in the 1990s, with an English grande dame in a human-interest story based on true events, so rote and unappealing it's a wonder there's actually a great story at its origin as well as a great performance at its centre.
Mr. Curtis, whose TV credits include Cranford and David Copperfield, seems somewhat out of his league in a tale that shuttles between Los Angeles and a Vienna portrayed as stately eye candy. It's difficult to think the Austrian capital could be shot in a more stilted, touristy way, but that's the least of the problems with this bowdlerized version of the process opposing Austrian Jewish exile Maria Altmann to the Austrian government over the restitution of five Klimt paintings expropriated from her family when the Nazis annexed the country in 1938. One of the paintings is the celebrated classic that gives the film its title, depicting none other than Maria's aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer.
We expect our Hollywood "based on true events" films to be reasonably fantastical. Yet there's so much that is wrong with Woman in Gold that what could have been an intriguing battle for the "soul" of a country against the "whitewashing" of history ends up becoming a trite underdog story; a courtroom drama full of switches and surprises punctuated by flashbacks reeking of cardboard villainy and pantomime goodness. The tale draws from Jane Chablani's BBC documentary Stealing Klimt, but this is hidden away at the end of the credits while upfront Alexi Kaye Campbell's script purports to be based on "the life stories of Maria Altmann and E. Randol Schoenberg", her lawyer.
At times, especially when Ms. Mirren's Maria forcefully makes clear that her issue lies in the need for the recognition of the wrongs done to her family, you glimpse what the film could have been if the story hadn't been "dumbed down" into a wholesome tale of a woman coming to terms with her past and a young man owning up to his family's lineage. This would be Mr. Schoenberg, son of one of her friends and grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, who initially takes the job for the money and the opportunity to make a name for himself but has a change of heart when faced with the callousness of Austrian bureaucracy. As played by the always pleasing Ryan Reynolds, however, Randy is purely a stock character given no particular personality.
All of this wouldn't be so much of an issue if there wasn't such artlessness and cause-and-effect clumsiness in the telling, effectively reducing a fascinating story to a series of Holocaust-movie clichés. In many ways, Woman in Gold is Stephen Frears' Philomena without the moral complexity that film's script kept in and reduced to a series of easily digestible platitudes. All hail Ms. Mirren, then, whose unabashed stiff-upper-lip professionalism allows her to actually create, sustain and enrich a character: her Maria Altmann is a living, breathing, feeling woman, someone whom you can see dealing with all that the situation entails, unlike all others around her, mere archetypes fulfilling strictly functional roles in a script mechanic that's as anonymous as it is offensive.
There is nothing to be said about Woman in Gold except that Helen Mirren is great in it, which in itself is not particularly original either.
WOMAN IN GOLD
USA, United Kingdom, 2015
Cast Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes
Director Simon Curtis; screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell; inspired by the BBC TV documentary by Jane Chablani Stealing Klimt; cinematographer Ross Emery (colour, widescreen); composers Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer; designer Jim Clay; costumes Beatrix Pasztor; editor Peter Lambert; producers David M. Thompson and Kris Thykier; production companies The Weinstein Company, BBC Films and Origin Pictures
screened June 1st 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 5, Lisbon, distributor press screening