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  • In “Woman In Gold,” Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) fights the Austrian government with the help of her amateur lawyer, Randy (Ryan Reynolds), to reclaim her family’s portrait that Austria refuses to release.
    Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
    In “Woman In Gold,” Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) fights the Austrian government with the help of her amateur lawyer, Randy (Ryan Reynolds), to reclaim her family’s portrait that Austria refuses to release.

“Woman In Gold” Imitates A Masterpiece

Dan Gvozden
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April 21, 2015

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Hollywood is in the business of creating franchises and repeating past successes as part of an established formula for low-risk success. When the independently produced and financed “Philomena” went on to become a genuine financial and critical success, as well as secure a nomination for Best Picture at that year’s Academy Awards, it was inevitable that lightning would try and strike the same spot twice.

Just like “Philomena,” “Woman in Gold” is a “true story” full of inspirational moments, quirky encounters and European locales; just replace “Philomena”’s nuns with Nazis, journalists with lawyers and child with a painting. There is nothing offensive or immoral about a film rehashing another’s successes; the problem is that “Woman in Gold” is a pale imitation pushed through an assembly line that lacks the heart, humor and visual grace of the film it is copying.

Director Simon Curtis (“My Week With Marilyn”) depicts the true story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a former Austrian who fled her country during the Nazi occupation to make her home in Los Angeles. Maria left more than her country and family behind; the Nazis looted her extremely wealthy family’s estate and stole five paintings, including a portrait by Gustav Klimt of her aunt Adele, renamed the “Woman in Gold,” that has gone on to become an Austrian national treasure. Now, many years later, Maria fights the Austrian government with the help of her amateur lawyer, Randy (Ryan Reynolds), to reclaim her family’s portrait that Austria refuses to release.

The history of the Klimt masterpiece and the Altmann family is told through a series of flashbacks to World War II. The flashbacks effectively detail the Nazis’ oppression of the Austrian Jews but fail to communicate an emotional connection between the Altmann family and their art. The film’s narrative momentum relies on the audience’s desire to see Maria reconnected with what is rightfully hers, but the storytelling fails to link these ideas emotionally. When the film reveals that the artwork is valued at around $110 million, one cannot help becoming suspicious about Maria’s actual motives, no matter the real-life facts of the story.

With all the character development relegated to flashbacks, the modern characters are robbed of richly detailed character profiling and motivations. The little we know about Reynold’s Randy paints him as an outclassed do-gooder with hardly a conflicting thought about any of his actions. He’s abandoned a high-paying, powerful job after years of failure, and yet we still are left in the dark about what is driving him. Even worse is his doting wife, Katie Holmes, whose sole role in the film is to offer vague support and assume the standard feminine marital roles.

Helen Mirren does what she can with her role as Maria but is mostly relegated to acting like an inflexible aristocrat who eventually gets caught up in the zeal of the legal proceedings. The role does not demand a measured performance from Mirren, who can definitely deliver, and instead repeats the familiar characterizations that Judy Dench brought to her character of “Philomena,” except with a far inferior script. We get a sense of Maria’s righteousness and disdain for her native country but rarely are allowed to feel the pain that accompanies it. Even worse, the script has no room for Mirren to dramatically portray what the painting of her aunt means to her after all these years.

The duo power forward with their lawsuit against the unsympathetic Austrians but rarely come up against any conflicting characters or ideas that threaten to derail their goals. The dramatics of the flashbacks are evident; it is rare to find an enemy as nefarious as the Nazis, but resting a film’s core conflict on the results of a legal proceeding that revolves around the acknowledgement of a note is hardly gripping drama. Maria and Randy are presented as the lone moral characters when a far more interesting look at the grays that surround the acquisition and ownership of art could have painted their goals with less nobility and more uncertainty. By skating past these complexities, “Woman in Gold” robs itself the opportunity for deeper introspection and audiences from fraught dramatic conflict.


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