Woman in Gold (Curtis/15)
“Woman in Gold” (2015), directed by Simon Curtis, is anchored by Mirren’s performance. She has the sharp, intelligent, quintessentially Austrian character of Maria Altmann down to the slightest mannerism, Mirren disappearing into her character. It’s to the credit of the script, by Alexi Kaye Campbell, that it creates a character so strongly delineated, as well as letting Mirren (who won an Academy Award for her performance in “The Queen” (2006)) suggest the inner vulnerabilities which her tough exterior seeks to hide.
If it’s a powerful, memorable performance, then it’s unfortunate that it outclasses the surrounding film. The material, tackling the important issue of the repatriation of art stolen by the Nazis, to their true owners, highlights the complex nature of modern-day Austrian society, still uncomfortable about its role in aiding Hitler during World War II. However, Curtis doesn’t seem up to the task. Previously having directed “My Week with Marilyn” (2011), his treatment too often errs on the side of the predictable, bathing flashbacks to the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria in 1939) in the now customary desaturated palette, providing a gloss on the past. Neither is there the hoped-for dynamism in handling the complex series of court cases that had to be fought against the Austrian government, both in Austria and the United States. The intricacies are glazed over in favour of dramatic speeches, although Ryan Reynolds as the lawyer is surprisingly good and manages to play the moments of humour early on in the film to maximum effect.
There’s an extensive cast, including Daniel Brühl as a sympathetic Austrian journalist, Charles Dance enjoying himself as a brusque head of a law firm and Jonathan Pryce in one scene playing the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, although Katie Holmes is given nothing to do as Reynolds’ wife.
The film’s major flaw then, is its script, from which Curtis is tied to. There’s no insight into Klimt and the eponymous “Woman in Gold”, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, is an exotic enigma, as flat as Klimt’s portrait of her. Shot in opalescent golds, in a literal cinematic transcription of her portrait, we never know who she is. Tethered to Mirren’s character childhood memories of her, her Austrian past is rendered as a simplistic golden era destroyed by the coming of Nazism. There’s no attempt to confront the existing anti-Semitism that was rife in Austria throughout the early 20th century, long before Hitler’s ascent to power; ultimately, the film sells the past short. It’s on steadier ground with Mirren and Reynolds grappling with the Austrian government’s attempts to frustrate their claims to Klimt’s masterpiece and these are the best portions of the film, perhaps as it focuses on Mirren and Reynolds, who have an undeniable screen chemistry. It’s thanks to their efforts that this film still remains worth viewing.