Review: Helen Mirren's 'Woman in Gold' paints by numbers and it could've been worse
It's probably something of a compliment that a "Weinstein Company" movie has become its own genre. Back in the day this would be known, of course, as a "Miramax" movie, but Harvey Weinstein has managed to keep this trope alive even at his relatively new company.
For those who are uniformed, a "Weinstein Company" movie usually includes a number of the following characteristics: (1) it's a period piece usually touching somehow on World War II, (2) it's primarily aimed at an over 25 and/or female demo, (3) it often features a meaty lead role that could lead to an Oscar nomination and/or (4) it features a previous Academy Award winner in some capacity. This type of movie used to be the definition of Oscar bait, but over the last decade it’s become almost exclusively associated with a majority of The Weinstein Company’s releases (You can now argue Oscar bait’s meaning has expanded to include other notable clichés). This formula is so associated with the Weinstein name that many incorrectly assumed that last year’s awards player "The Imitation Game" was developed and produced by TWC. In fact, TWC acquired the picture after it completed production. Now, the studio is releasing another film that perfectly fits in their wheelhouse: "Woman in Gold."
Directed by Simon Curtis ("My Week with Marilyn"), "Gold" tells the story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), an Austrian immigrant to the United States who struggled to gain custody of a number of Gustav Klimt paintings from the Austrian government at the turn of the 21st Century. Altmann's family owned the paintings including "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," a masterwork eventually known as "Lady in Gold", but the Nazis stole them during their occupation of the country. After the war, the Austrian government insisted that Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altman's aunt, had left the paintings to the Austrian State Gallery. Over 40 years later, the political climate turned in a direction that saw the Austrian government returning great stolen works of art to their rightful owners. Historically, it's slightly unclear if Altmann ventured on a journey to recover the paintings because of the death of her sister or whether an Austrian journalist tipped her off over something he discovered, but the film paints it as the former. The long and the short of it was that, legally, Altmann owned the paintings, but would the Austrian government hand over their "Mona Lisa" to her?
The movie begins with Altmann, now a longtime Los Angeles resident, recruiting a young, inexperienced lawyer in these matters, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), to help her suss out her legal options. Schoenberg, a forgettable character whose arc finds him looking for professional redemption after failing with his own firm, becomes intrigued with the case and soon the two are on their way to Vienna for a hearing over the ownership of the paintings. The modern day storyline with Altmann and Schoenberg soon descends into a pretty predictable courtroom drama with Mirren giving Altmann all sorts of feisty old lady moments that would absolutely be caricature in less experienced hands. What's much more interesting, however, are the extended flashback scenes to Altmann's life in Nazi-occupied Austria and how she and her husband miraculously escaped from house arrest.
Granted, material of this sort has been mined many times before, but Curtis' direction is much more authentic during this earlier period in Altmann's life. Much of the credit has to go to "Orphan Black's" Tatiana Maslany who plays the younger Altmann and veteran character actors such as Antje Traue, the subject of the famed painting, and Henry Goodman and Allan Corduner as Altmann's father and uncle, respectively. Maslay, in particular, shines as she conveys the juxtaposition of Altmann's happiness before the Nazi's arrive and her horror over the fate of her family afterward. Much of this is simply Maslay's natural charisma, but to say she breathes new energy into the movie when she appears on screen is something of an understatement.
Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell also do a good job of integrating the flashbacks as organically as possible even if their introduction, a family portrait that literally comes to life, is slightly jarring. They make up for it with a wonderful sequence that eloquently ends the film and which we won’t spoil here. Unfortunately, that makes the rest of the "modern" storyline a paint by numbers endeavor.
Condensing a complicated seven-year legal battle into a 109-minute drama isn't easy, but it’s more difficult when the result of the case is hardly in question. Even if you've never heard of Altmann's story the movie pretty much telegraphs how it’s all going to turn out. When "Woman in Gold" works in the relative present day its only because Mirren is talented enough to make the audience sympathize for Altmann and understand her simmering resentment towards a homeland she’d rather forget existed. Mirren's director, on the other hand, can't assist in this effort as he's unable to free the film of so many of the aforementioned clichés of the genre. And, Mirren and Masley's contributions aside, that makes "Woman in Gold" nothing more than another polished trope in The Weinstein Company library.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, but excuse us for at least hoping we might find something that even slightly breaks the mold.
"Woman in Gold" opens in limited release on Wednesday.