We re-enter the realm of the true story as we did with ‘The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Selma,” to name a few recent such excursions, with “Woman in Gold.” No doubt the “truth police” will be out to remind us what really happened and what the filmmakers made up as well as huff and puff about, as one critic put it at the film’s Berlinale debut, “mediocre filmmaking.”
This has become the jerk-knee response of film critics when confronted with themes of social importance and justice within historical contexts. If filmmakers stick to the facts, they moan about a prodding, legalistic drama but if they drift from those facts they level charges of falsehoods.
Many critics seem to hate the “true story,” as if the manner in which fact crafts an unbelievable story offends their sense of fiction’s mysticism. Unlike film critics of the mid-20th century, who were used to “true stories” that bore only a passing resemblance to fact, today’s cinema-minders seem thoroughly disenchanted with the whole subject.
Well, call me middle-brow but “Women in Gold” is a thoughtful and at times stirring true-life account by director Simon Curtis and writer Alexi Kaye Campbell of Austrian-Jewish Holocaust refugee and Los Angeles resident Maria Altmann’s quest to recover five Gustav Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis from her family home, most especially Klimt’s luxurious, art-nouveau masterpiece, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” a painting of Altmann’s long passed aunt.
That painting, later dubbed “Woman in Gold” (possibly to cover up the model’s Jewish ancestry), hung in the decades following the war in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, as the institution blithely hid or “lost” paperwork concerning its theft.
Yes, the film may contain some of the earnestness and tasteful decorum of BBC television shows and movies but so what? In American hands this may have been a flashier and more vigorous tale but would it be any better? Doubtful.
Curtis’ methodical laying out of the story from beginning to end — from a quick opening of Klimt (in a blink-and-you’ll miss him appearance by Moritz Bleibtreu) embellishing the canvas with gold leaf to the final moments when an Austrian arbitration panel hands down its ruling about ownership — gets all the meat and bone of the incredible tale.
The possibly semi-fictional part of the movie — look, I never met Altmann so I wouldn’t know — has the great Helen Mirren playing the aging woman as feisty and headstrong so she can butt heads with her young, nebbish attorney, Randy Schoenberg (played engagingly by Ryan Reynolds), who doesn’t believe in the case at first and then becomes more of a true believer than even Mrs. Altmann.
The legal case that wound through American courts up to the Supreme Court then headed for an arbitration in Austria — at Randy’s suggestion in order to speed up proceedings, which were deliberately being dragged out by Austrian authorities in anticipation of Maria’s passing — gets efficiently reduced to its essence in a script from British playwright Campbell.
The emotionally harrowing return of Maria and her lawyer to the Vienna of her childhood triggers memories of, and flashbacks to, the highly dramatic story of her family life in a palatial apartment at the heart of the city’s thriving Jewish community, her marriage to a handsome opera singer, then the “Anschluss” that allowed Hitler to annex Austria and the couple’s terrifying escape from that country.
These events alone are worthy of an entire movie but get nicely telescoped here. Tatiana Maslany plays the young Maria as a spirited, beautiful woman while Max Irons somewhat distantly plays her husband Fritz.
German actress Antje Traue plays glamorous Aunt Adele with a whiff of Old World mystery and allure, while Allan Corduner has touching moments as Maria’s father Gustav, playing on his Stradivarius cello, another treasure seized by Nazi thugs.
Two extended sequences in modern-day Vienna detail the bureaucratic forces these two must go up against in a country that has never come to terms with its own culpability in the Nazi Holocaust and its responsibilities in the area of restitution.
For Maria this only re-enforces her bittersweet relationship with a country she was forced to flee and for Randy, grandson of one Austria’s most famous composers, it forcefully reminds him of a heritage he has chosen to virtually ignore.
Helping the cause of the two Angelenos is a local journalist (Daniel Brüel, excellent), who has his own reasons for wishing to see a redress of injustices from the past.
There are weak scenes of Randy’s home life with Katie Holmes in a thankless role as his supportive wife. (Surely what makes it into the final cut is not what Holmes signed up for originally, is it?) So, yes, the film does occasionally prod yet how else to portray the huge career and financial risks Randy Schoenberg took in quitting a big L.A law firm to take up a seemingly quixotic legal case.
Mirren is superb but what else were you expecting? Whether playing Queen Elizabeth or an aging action heroine, Mirren always brings a calm, centered, unerring commitment to her roles.
Underplaying Maria’s Austrian accent and mirroring her staunch determination, Mirren beautifully captures the woman’s sense of moral outrage and unwillingness to acquiesce to bureaucratic bullies.
Name actors such as Elizabeth McGovern and Jonathan Pryce don robes to play judges at points in the movie.
The film benefits from fine contributions by production designer Jim Clay and costumer Beatrix Pasztor in the recreation of late ‘30s Vienna while the score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer hits its notes a tad too heavily.
So “Woman in Gold” is not a sexy movie like the woman in the painting but it does considerable justice to the story of a woman who seeks exactly that — justice. Justice not only for herself but for her mostly vanished family and for history itself.
Opens: April 1, 2015 (The Weinstein Co.)
Production company: Origin Pictures, The Weinstein Company, BBC Films
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Katie Holmes, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu, Tom Schilling, Allan Corduner, Henry Goodman, Nina Kunzendorf
Director: Simon Curtis
Screenwriter: Alexi Kaye Campbell
Based on the life stories of: E. Randol Schoenberg, Maria Altmann
Producers: David M. Thompson, Kris Thykier
Executive producers: Christine Langan, Harvey Weinstein, Negeen Yazdi, Robert Walak, Ed Wethered, Alan Yentob, Ed Rubin, Simon Curtis, Tim Jackson
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Jim Clay
Music: Martin Phipps, Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Beatrix Pasztor
Editor: Peter Lambert
PG-13 rating, 110 minutes.