Woman in Gold, starring the legendary Helen Mirren, is a great story and a so-so film. It’s based on the true account of a famous Austrian painting seized illegally and immorally by the Nazis from its rightful owner, and the attempts of the last living relative, Maria Altmann, to get it back.
It takes the opposite tack from Last year’s dreadful The Monuments Men (https://film-prof.com/?s=monuments+men), which lamely tells the story of a group of men organized to do the retrieving of many of these stolen works of art. That film took the birds’-eye view of the problem and one of its solutions; this one tells one person’s story and focuses on one painting in particular. It’s a better film, but not by much.
The structure of the film involves many a flashback to Maria’s (Mirren) youth, her relationship with her aunt (the subject of the famous painting), her marriage and her eventual escape from the Nazis. The present has her working to get the painting back from Austria, for which it has become “the country’s Mona Lisa,” as one character says. To help make this happen, she enlists the aid of a young lawyer and family man played by Ryan Reynolds in a nearly painful way.
Mirren is a giant in British cinema, for television as much as for her films. In the U.S., it was probably her Oscar-winning work in The Queen that made her the most noticed. While she is an actress first rather than a personality taking on this role and that, her recent performances haven’t been the best fits for her. Last year’s Hundred-Foot Journey had her put on a French accent, and she gave her best to every scene she was in (https://film-prof.com/?s=Hundred+Foot+Journey), but she is as French as Whoopi Goldberg, and while her work was admirable, it wasn’t completely believable.
She has almost the same problem here, but the accent is a slightly better fit and again she digs in as deeply as she can. She is playing a German Jew, and what we see is a great British actress doing a winning impersonation. But even with all that talent put to work, the star still outshines the character.
What doesn’t help is the couple playing the younger Maria (Tatiana Maslany) and her husband (Max Irons, son of acting greats Jeremy Irons and Sinéad Cusack). We see their life in Vienna, their wedding, their early years together, and their thrilling escape from Vienna to a safe life in the U.S. Unfortunately for Mirren, her younger self and her husband are far more believable, and to press the point further, far more interesting than the older Maria. While the attempts to sue the Austrian government is not an unexciting journey, the rising anti-Semitism, the young couple’s love, and the painful and suspenseful escape are far more engaging than the main story.
The film also steps on its own toes by having the young couple successfully escape, which we know must have happened, and then completely dropping all mention of the husband, who has come off as caring and likable. In researching this after seeing the film, I was sure they must have divorced or he died an early death. In actuality, they had four children and remained married until his death in 1994. Why this is buried is distracting and odd.
A fascinating real-world confluence of various artistic streams is found in the person of E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of Austrian musical composer Arnold Schoenberg. There are two problems there, one small and one insurmountable. The small problem is that the film tries to connect Randol to his famous ancestor and his work, as well as the composer’s role as an Austrian. There’s a concert of Schoenberg music, and a few tears, but it doesn’t work, and it becomes little ado about nothing.
What is the film’s biggest goof is the casting of Ryan Reynolds as Randol Schoenberg. The film is a BBC Films Productions, in part, and it’s a rogue’s gallery of solid British and European actors: “I remember that guy from ‘Foyle’s War,’ and hey, wasn’t he in Run, Lola, Run?” Casting Reynolds, one of America’s best romantic comedy actors, was an obvious choice from a marketing point of view. But it nearly undoes the film.
Reynolds is a solid comic actor and world-class line reader (https://film-prof.com/?s=line+readers). What he isn’t, apparently, is a solid straight dramatic actor. In Woman in Gold, he places his serious lines in the same verbal rhythms as his best comedy work, and they fall neither comfortably nor convincingly in those cadences. Beyond that, Reynolds simply doesn’t locate and lock down on this essentially serious character. The actor’s glibness pops out here and there, against the tenor of the scene, and Reynold’s natural charm often comes to the fore at the most importune times. He moves into tears and being overwrought a few times, but none of them resonate. It’s a major miscasting, and almost torpedos the film.
Piling on to the damage of the miscasting is Katie Holmes as Randol’s wife. She nearly floats off the screen, making little to no impression. Part of the stress of the whole situation is supposed to be Randol’s commitment/obsession with the case and its impact on his family. Between the two actors here, those issues seem to evaporate as quickly as they are approached.
What makes this all worthwhile is the strength of the artistic, family, historical, and nationalistic story behind the painting. Rooted in the horrors of Nazism, the pain of broken families, the pursuit of justice, and the feisty charm of an old woman wanting her family’s artifacts back where they belong, the story alone makes the film worth seeing. Like Big Eyes, this is a flawed film on a fascinating topic. Also like Big Eyes, this “interesting” film is just good enough to prevent the possible really good film on the subject from ever being filmed.