When a woman tries to recover her family’s artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War II, she hires a young lawyer to represent her – but can this as-yet unproven counselor working on his own handle such a complex case?
With the recent passing of Maria Altmann’s (Mirren) older sister, she’s suddenly overwhelmed with memories and possessions previously owned by her over the years. In the decades since they escaped Nazi persecution by leaving their home of Vienna, Austria to eventually settle in Los Angeles, California, they set out to live the type of happy, long life their Jewish relatives who remained behind could not. In going through her late sister’s belongings, she is reminded of a portrait of her Aunt Adele, which was absconded by the Nazis and has been hanging in a Viennese art gallery for many years; the painting, made by the noted Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, became famously known as “The Woman In Gold”.
Desiring to get the painting back, Maria engages one of Los Angeles’ biggest and most powerful law firms, who then assign recent-hire Randy Schoenberg (Reynolds) to her case. Upon meeting with Maria, Randy is overwhelmed by all of the information she’s dumping on him – but being the ambitious type and wanting to make his mark with a relatively new employer, he agrees to take the case. When they travel to Vienna for their initial research, Maria and Randy finally begin to get a sense of what an uphill battle this whole endeavor will be. Not only are they dealing with a challenging legal system in Austria, they also have the obstacle of a resolute and stubborn council from the gallery who are neither willing to surrender the painting, nor particularly open to negotiation.
Months later, after a bit of research, Randy finds a loophole which might allow Maria to bring legal action against the gallery in the United States instead of Austria, greatly facilitating her efforts. When a judge rules in her favor, she now finds that they will have the opportunity to take her case to The Supreme Court Of The United States. By now, however, Maria is not so sure she wants to go this far; it’s been a long battle and given all the effort and energy involved, she’s lost motivation to fight. But can Randy convince her to pursue the case to its logical conclusion? And even if he does, will such a relatively inexperienced lawyer have the skills to debate before the highest court in the land?
Any movie starring Helen Mirren can almost certainly guarantee a worthwhile viewing experience. While Mirren definitely elevates “Woman In Gold” above what it might normally have been in the hands of a lesser actress, it nevertheless remains mediocre at best. The primary problem with this film has to do with its weak screenplay, which is a squeaky-clean version of this incredible true story that does a great disservice to the parties involved. Add to this the fact that the script seems to toss in just about every standard contrivance, cliché or trite dialog technique possible and it’s a wonder why it didn’t go through another draft (at least) prior to shooting.
Given Mirren’s recent work (specifically, as Queen Elizabeth in “The Audience” on Broadway and her character in “The Hundred Foot Journey”), it would seem the actress is being offered nothing other than the imperious older European woman roles lately. Ryan Reynolds as Mirren’s lawyer is hopelessly miscast in this role as the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. He is unconvincing as a man of Austrian descent connected to his Jewish heritage. Katie Holmes is vastly underutilized in her infinitesimal role as Reynold’s wife; the part seems like a mere placeholder and does precious little to substantially advance the story.
Liberties are taken with respect to the language spoken by Austrians when non-English speaking characters are present in the same scene; sometimes they speak subtitled German to each other and other times it appears not to be the case, presumably to make things more palatable for a primarily English-speaking audience. One example is a scene where Reynold’s and Mirren’s characters are conversing in her Vienna hotel room while the television is on and the news is being broadcast. When they stop to watch the TV, the Austrians being interviewed are speaking English instead of German. How this made sense to the filmmakers may forever remain a mystery.