“That’s quite a painting,” someone says in Woman in Gold on first glimpsing Gustav Klimt’s celebrated Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and anyone who has seen the artwork in person would have to agree.
The saga of how this dazzling work, sometimes known as “the Mona Lisa of Austria,” came to leave the walls of Vienna’s august Belvedere Gallery to take up permanent residence in the United States is quite a story as well.
It’s regrettable, then, that Woman in Gold is no more than adequate, more old-fashioned Hollywoodization than incisive modern dramatization. Helen Mirren stars as Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece, an imperious Los Angeles matron we first meet in 1998, burying her only sister in a local cemetery. After the service, Maria reconnects with an old friend and fellow Austrian, emigre Barbara Schoenberg (Frances Fisher), the daughter-in-law of the great composer Arnold Schoenberg.
It turns out that Maria is in need of a lawyer she can trust, and Barbara’s son Randol, aka Randy, the composer’s grandson, is a struggling local lawyer in desperate need of a significant case. It sounds like a match made in heaven except that for quite some time it’s anything but.
One of the things that makes this a story of interest is that, even though its ending was a glorious one, not only was its outcome uncertain for years but also its two main participants were not always eager to collaborate.
For one thing, Maria, interested in the return of five Klimt paintings, including the Adele portrait, that the Nazis seized from her family, is looking for an expert in art restitution, an area Randy (a game but overmatched Ryan Reynolds) knows nothing about.
Randy, for his part, is just starting a new job (Charles Dance is his no-nonsense boss) and a family (Katie Holmes is the standard-issue, mostly understanding wife), and has no time for a wild goose chase, especially in the company of a woman whose manner he clearly finds off-putting.
Audiences, however, will likely feel otherwise about Maria Altmann. Though this kind of bossy performance can be viewed as falling off a log for Mirren, the actress expertly creates Maria’s Mittel-European hauteur and leavens it with enough humanity to give the film an integrity it definitely needs.
Not that director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell don’t try hard (maybe too hard) for significance and heft. There are several German-language flashbacks to the family’s time in Vienna, most effectively to the days when Maria was a child (Tatiana Maslany) and the favorite niece of her aunt Adele (Antje Traue.)
Even without including speculation about a possible Klimt/Adele relationship or acknowledging the controversy around how Adele and family eventually disposed of the paintings, there is enough incident here to support a film. You just wish Woman in Gold was a better one.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce.
Director: Simon Curtis.
Screenwriter: Alexi Kaye Campbell.
A Weinstein Co. release. Running time: 110 minutes. Vulgar language, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.