*SIGH* Another movie about WWII. Quite possibly the most heavily documented and endlessly exploited time period in cinema history. But at least it’s different this time, since this movie is about art that was seized by the Nazis. So it’s really a passionate statement about art, its place in our history, who really owns art or even if any one person can really “own” art….
Sorry, what’s that? The Monuments Men already did that a year ago? DAMMIT!
Okay, so maybe that comparison isn’t necessarily fair. After all, Woman in Gold takes place primarily in 1998, often flashing back to Nazi-occupied Austria to provide the necessary history. Also, the main character of Maria Altmann is played by Helen Mirren, who’s long since proven that she can remain eminently watchable in even the shittiest of films. The woman could play a coffee stain and somehow make it work. We’ve also got Ryan Reynolds, who seems to have spent the past few years floundering in search of that one perfect role to prove that yes, he actually does have a modicum of talent.
I was willing to give this movie a chance. And not even an hour after leaving, I can barely muster up the energy to think about it.
This is a film based on the true story of Maria Altmann, played in varying ages by Helen Mirren and “Orphan Black” up-and-comer Tatiana Maslany. Altmann grew up in a very successful family, with friends and relatives among the greatest artists in all Vienna (which is saying a lot). One particularly esteemed friend of the Altmann family was Gustav Klimt, who was commissioned by Maria’s wealthy uncle to make a portrait of his wife (Maria’s Aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, played here by Antje Traue). And because this happened during Klimt’s storied “golden phase,” the portrait of Adele was made with actual gold leaf.
Yes, the family had a gold-plated portrait of a beloved relative, and they had more influential friends than money could buy. It seemed that they had everything. But then the Third Reich happened.
Because Altmann and her family were Jewish, the Nazis of course took every opportunity to relieve them of anything and everything that might have even the slightest value. They were broke, they couldn’t work, they were being demeaned in every way possible, and that was even before the concentration camps. Luckily, several of Maria’s relatives had the good sense to leave before Hitler came knocking, and Maria herself was able to sneak her way out of Austria with her husband. Her parents, however, weren’t so lucky.
Flash forward to 1998, when Maria is at her sister’s funeral and pretty much everyone else from her family has passed on. After going through some of her sister’s old letters, Maria is reminded that her beloved aunt’s gilded portrait passed through several Nazi hands before winding up at the Austrian State Gallery. Even better, Austria has recently changed its policy, making it easier for Holocaust survivors to reclaim property stolen from them and their families during the war.
With this new documentation and the policy changes in place, Maria thinks she may have a chance at getting the portrait back. Unfortunately, the painting (which, I’ll remind you, was made with freaking gold leaf) is now worth millions of dollars. We’re also told multiple times that the painting is of immense cultural value to Austria, though the film never bothers to actually show us how.
Anyway, this is the point in the story when we meet E. Randol Schoenberg, here immortalized by Ryan Reynolds. Randy is the grandson of a very prominent Austrian composer, so of course his family was very close to the Altmanns. Randy is also the son of a judge, so he naturally decided to go and be a lawyer. He’s just secured a new job at a prestigious law firm, he has a family to care for, and then Maria comes into the picture.
Unwilling to trust a total stranger with such a hugely intimate matter, Maria enlists Randy (who’s only barely out of law school, I might add) to help see if she has a chance at getting the painting back. What follows is a quest through Austria as they chase down clues, travel to relevant locations, convince people into helping them along the way, and eventually earn closure for Maria’s family.
So really, the Monuments Men comparison was completely unfounded. It’s really more similar to Philomena, except if Steve Coogan was replaced with… I dunno, Chris Hemsworth.
The film is in trouble right off the bat because our two leads never seem to click. Maria and Randy are onscreen together through vast stretches of running time and it’s their actions that drive the movie forward, but the chemistry between them simply isn’t there. The film so desperately wanted and needed us to believe that these people care for each other, but without that spark between them, it’s very hard to get invested in whatever friendship they’ve built. And without any hint of comedic timing between them, they get so boring to watch.
Individually, it should go without saying that Mirren acquits herself brilliantly. She’s easily the best actor in this movie. Which is because she’s the only actor in this cast who can elevate the material. None of the characters are particularly well-developed, and Maria is sadly not an exception. Maria has a nasty tendency to decide that she’d rather die than go back to Austria, then just as quickly decide in the next scene that she’s in this for the long haul. This extreme and random change in motivation happens something like two or three times, and it’s never for any better reason than because the plot says so.
Randy suffers from a similar problem. The entire plot hinges on Randy’s fervent belief that this is a cause worth fighting for, and the movie never quite sold me on precisely why he was so willing to go to hell and back for Maria. Again, a lot of that goes back to how the Randy/Maria partnership doesn’t click nearly as well as it needed to. More importantly, this is the thematic linchpin of the entire film. If Randy can’t sell us on why it’s so important for Maria to get her aunt’s painting back, the entire movie falls apart.
In point of fact, the cast seems to be populated entirely with two-dimensional plot devices masquerading as characters, doing whatever the plot needs them to at a particular moment. We’ve got an investigative reporter (that’s seriously how he introduces himself, “investigative reporter”) who serves as our fountain of exposition and helps to get Randy whatever he needs just because he’s friendly like that. But he’s played by Daniel Bruhl, who’s at least talented enough to make some kind of slight impression.
Randy’s wife is played by Katie Holmes, and that should tell you how interesting she is to watch. Randy’s boss is played by Charles Dance, and has he ever played someone who wasn’t a villain or a stuffy bureaucrat of some kind? Between this and The Imitation Game, I don’t think he ever said a single line of dialogue that didn’t boil down to either “yes” or “no.” Speaking of which, we also have Justus von Dohnányi as our chief antagonist, a transparently evil museum executive.
Let me put that in perspective: In the present storyline, Maria is going to court against a one-dimensionally evil scumbucket who wants to keep a portrait from its rightful owner. Compare that to the flashback storyline, when Maria is running from her life against motherfucking Nazis. There is no possible way to have villains who are more one-dimensionally evil than motherfucking Nazis. You do not put in more one-dimensionally evil villains when you already have motherfucking Nazis. It’s only going to make the other villains look more bland by comparison.
This brings me to another huge problem with the movie: The ’90s storyline (which is, for all intents and purposes, the primary driving storyline) is a courtroom drama. All the major decisions, actions, and conflicts between characters happen in various courtrooms. Every scene in the ’90s plot is either a court hearing or something to set up a court hearing. There are several ways to make a courtroom drama interesting and this film utilizes precisely none of them.
(Side note: Except for Jonathan Pryce turning up in a neat little cameo as the Chief Supreme Court Justice. That was kind of charming.)
For one thing, we never get to see any of the judges deliberating, to detail how and why they come to reach their verdicts. For another thing, the courtroom scenes themselves — despite being the most crucial turning points in the entire film — only get a couple minutes of screen time apiece. Which means that neither side gets to make a compelling argument and there’s virtually no tension from any conflict between the two. No, the courtroom scenes are only just long enough for Randy to make some kind of impassioned speech in Maria’s favor. Which means that it’s up to Ryan Reynolds to carry the entire scene, and I’m sorry to say that he’s not nearly charismatic enough for the job.
It’s not like the film wasn’t unsalvageable. The story has plenty of potential and the cast might have been great if they were given anything to work with, but it was obvious from start to finish that the writing and direction simply weren’t there. And taking a closer look at the credits, I can see why. Director Simon Curtis was previously responsible for My Week with Marilyn, a pathetically risk-free film that was completely incapable of saying anything new or interesting or intelligent. All of which are complaints that I could just as easily have levied against this film. As for writer Alexi Kaye Campbell, this is his very first screenplay after a career of writing British plays and TV shows. I also understand that Campbell spent some time as an actor, perhaps best known to American audiences as an unnamed Naboo guard in The Phantom Menace.
Woman in Gold is inert. Between the half-assed courtroom drama, the paper-thin characters driven by the plot instead of their own motivations, the non-existent chemistry between the two leads, and the same Holocaust-era story of oppressed Jews that we’ve already seen a million times before, nothing in this movie succeeds at making any kind of connection. It’s not even bad enough to hate, since Helen Mirren is fantastic as always and the true-life story still looks fascinating in spite of its dull and stupid treatment here.
There’s not a doubt in my mind that everyone involved with this picture meant well, but I wish that those good intentions translated into good cinema. There’s no tension, no conflict that’s worth a damn, and nothing in the way of a coherent or well-argued point. Definitely not recommended.