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Review: Woman in Gold (2015)

Woman in Gold (2015)

Directed by: Simon Curtis 

Premise: A true story of a Jewish-American immigrant (Helen Mirren) who attempts to reclaim a family painting that was stolen by the Nazis and now resides in an Austrian art gallery.

What Works: In the twenty-two years since Schindler’s List, the Holocaust drama has become a fixture of Hollywood’s output of prestige pictures. After such varied titles as The Reader, Life is Beautiful, and The Pianist, it sometimes seems as though the subject has been tapped out. But the filmmakers of Woman in Gold have managed to do something at least marginally unique with their movie and it is a satisfying drama that goes beyond the immediate horror of genocide by exploring the legacy of a survivor and dramatizing how those in the present may right the wrongs of the past. Adapting true events, a Jewish immigrant, played by Helen Mirren, retains a young lawyer, played by Ryan Reynolds, in an attempt to reclaim a family painting that was stolen by the Nazis and now resides in an Austrian art gallery. Reynolds gives a surprising performance as the attorney. The actor typically plays confident and quick witted alpha male characters but in Woman in Gold Reynolds is cast against type as an underdog who is awkward and unsure of himself. Reynolds does the part well and in a few scenes he is able to stretch his dramatic skills much more than he has in other roles. Reynold’s character discovers his own family lineage has been impacted by the Holocaust and that gives him a renewed sense of purpose and personalizes the case. Reynolds is paired with Helen Mirren as an elderly shop owner trying to reclaim a family heirloom. As usual, Mirren is a spunky and fun screen presence. At times the role threatens to turn into an elderly Jewish lady caricature in the mode of Driving Miss Daisy but Mirren plays the role with a lot of underlying trauma that makes her more than a stereotype. The story of Woman in Gold flashes backward and forward on the timeline, alternating the progress of the court case with the drama of a Jewish family surviving in Nazi-occupied Austria. The film shifts between the time periods very well and these moments enhance Mirren’s character while also giving the fight over this painting additional dramatic weight.

What Doesn’t: Woman in Gold is guilty of being too simplistic. The filmmakers are clearly on the side of Mirren’s character and her opposition is tarred as being complicit with war crimes. The issue requires more subtlety than that. When Mirren’s character returns to Austria for the first time since fleeing the Nazis she frequently speaks derisively about the country and its people. Given what she’s been through, that attitude is understandable. But the film does not do much to acknowledge that the people fighting her now are not the same people who killed her family and confiscated her possessions. But more often than not, those speaking on behalf of the Austrian government are demonized. That’s unfair because the issue of ownership of art, including this particular work, is more complicated than the filmmakers depict. As portrayed in the film, the painting was originally privately held but for the majority of its existence the piece was displayed publically and, as one of the characters in the movie puts it, Woman in Gold became the Mona Lisa of Austria. At that point the ownership of the painting is contestable, if not legally, at least culturally. But that kind of sophisticated argument does not seem to interest the filmmakers of Woman in Gold and they don’t even try to address it in a meaningful way. As a courtroom drama, Woman in Gold does not do a very effective job of dramatizing the legal arguments. Dramatists need to streamline court proceedings, but they are so pared down in this movie that many of the legal scenes are glossed over, even a critical moment in which Reynold’s character speaks before the Supreme Court of the United States.

Bottom Line: Woman in Gold is a fairly good picture. It’s relatively straightforward and simplistic and that will make it an audience pleaser. The movie could have been more than it is but the filmmakers have created an acceptable drama with some good performances.

Episode: #540 (May 3, 2015)