Hubertus Czernin: She’s the Mona Lisa of Austria – do you think they’re just going to let her go?
Maria Altmann (played by the ever-magnificent Helen Mirren in her older years, and by the equally magnificent Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame as a young newlywed in Austria) was, like countless others, forced to flee her Nazi-occupied home and head for a new life in the United States during World War II. What made her unique however, was that she was the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, subject of Gustav Klimt’s famous portrait. For years this portrait was displayed proudly in her family residence. But after her escape, the painting, along with countless other treasures, was taken by the Nazis, the artwork eventually finding its way to the Austrian State Gallery in Vienna. In WOMAN IN GOLD, director Simon Curtis (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN) details Altmann’s struggle to reclaim the portrait, along with a number of others, that were taken from her family so maliciously.
Assisting Maria in her effort is young lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose own family history sparks a fiery passion for the case over the course of his trip to Austria. Faced with continued resistance from the art gallery over what they regard to be one of their rightfully owned and treasured masterpieces, Randy and Maria combine forces with an Austrian journalist (played by Daniel Bruhl, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS), battling both practical and personal obstacles to right history’s wrong.
Altmann’s story is certainly a moving one, but the film’s appeal rests almost entirely on its cast. One would expect nothing different from Mirren, and Reynolds holds his own equally well to make the partnership (and friendship) of Maria and Randy quite warm and engaging. Maslany never ceases to amaze, and no less so in her portrayal of young Maria in war-torn Austria.
But there’s no question that something key is missing from WOMAN IN GOLD, even if you’re not quite sure what that is. Despite the stellar acting, the story feels drawn out and the emotions forced. The flashbacks are charming at first, but eventually become cumbersome and predictable. Some of the attempts at humour succeed; others come off as just plain odd. And while you’d think there would be a punch to the delivery lurking under the surface, if there is one, it just never shows up. Rather than walk away with a “Wow, what a great story” feeling, you’re more likely to turn to your neighbour and say, “That Tatiana Maslany is a great actress, hey?” I’m not entirely sure that’s the effect Curtis was going for.