2015 / Director. Simon Curtis.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
Much of the promotional art would suggest that WOMAN IN GOLD is a showcase vehicle for Helen Mirren, and indeed, her character is the focal point of this fascinating true story. But it is Ryan Reynolds who owns the film. He is exceptional and clocks up another notch to his dramatic belt that proves him to be a versatile, understated and charismatic actor of his generation.
The film tells the story of Maria Altmann, an elderly Austrian woman who took the Austrian government to court to reclaim a portrait of her aunt, which was stolen from her home by the Nazis during the Holocaust. When the war ended the portrait went on display at the Austrian State Gallery and became the pride of a nation. Maria enlisted the guidance of a friend's lawyer son, Randol Schoenberg, and embarked on a ten year crusade to see the art returned to its rightful owner. With the Austrian government blocking her every step of the way, the story sees the two of them pursue every possible legal avenue. From private negotiations with the government to the art restitution board in Vienna... and all the way to the American supreme court. It was a David and Goliath battle that came with a lot of personal sacrifice and heartache and became a story for the history books.
It's a fascinating story that has been told respectfully with the strength of two sincere and impassioned performances. Helen Mirren is good, of course, and such a role is like a walk in the park for her. With her age and maturity as an actress she understood the character and was able to embody the persona with ease. The knockout performance, however, is Ryan Reynolds, as the young and audacious lawyer. His character was initially in it for the money but soon found himself sacrificing everything in his life to pursue justice. Discovering his own heritage along the way it becomes a deeply personal journey and Reynolds embodies the character and delivers an emotionally charged performance.
The intricate details of the ongoing legal proceedings are washed over and director Simon Curtis has chosen to tell the story through an emotive use of flashbacks and character backstory. Maria's youth is woven throughout the film with cleverly conceived scenes of Nazi occupation and a breathtaking escape to America. These portions of the film are staged rather modestly with most shots being close-up and the remaining wide shots feeling contained and modest. The cuts between the two time frames of the story are well blended and avoid being abrupt and distracting. One particular moment of reflection is incredibly moving and reaffirms that this is a personal drama, rather than a legal one.
The film played me like a cello and I fell for almost all of its filmmaking trickery. I became besotted with Maria's story and I was moved by Randol's personal journey. The imagery tug at my heartstrings and the performances forced the lump in my throat to swell. I have read that a few of the smaller details regarding other characters have been altered for the sake of a fluent narrative and these are liberties I am willing to forgive. Hopefully WOMAN IN GOLD will inspire some of its viewers to explore the story further and gain a better understanding of the various other players in this historical story.