A great story doesn’t always translate into a great movie, even when Helen Mirren’s on hand. “Woman in Gold,” the based-on-fact tale of an elderly woman who spent many years fighting the Austrian government to reclaim paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis, is not at all a bad movie, particularly when Mirren is on screen, doing that wonderfully imperious-but-vulnerable thing that she does so very well. But you watch wondering how much is the real story and how much is movie sweetening – and after seeing the film’s touching final title cards briefly describing the fates of the characters, I couldn’t help wishing for a documentary version.
Mirren plays Maria Altmann, a woman from a wealthy, art-loving Austrian family who fled Vienna and the Nazis as a newlywed in the late 1930s, eventually settling in Los Angeles. When we first meet her, it’s 1998, and she’s all too aware of the fleeting passage of time. Buttonholing a young LA attorney (Ryan Reynolds) who’s a family friend, she tells him of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” a glittering, gold-encrusted painting of her aunt. Now a famous work of art, it hangs in a gallery in Austria, and Maria has learned that her late sister made attempts to return the work, and others, to their family. Taking up the cause, with the help of idealistic lawyer Randy, she becomes determined to see justice – and restitution – done. The story is told with frequent flashbacks to wartime Austria, with Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) as the young Maria and Antje Traue, an arresting beauty, as her aunt Adele.
Maria Altmann’s story was a small part of the fine documentary “The Rape of Europa” a few years back; it well deserves a film of its own. “Woman in Gold” falters in places: Reynolds’ bland screen quality doesn’t help his underwritten character, and every scene of his home life (with Katie Holmes as his wife) manages to be both dull and implausible. But Mirren, as you might expect, takes hold of the movie and steers it home. Her Maria is unfailingly tough (“I have decided to face the ghosts,” she says, of her return to Austria after 60 years), with the precise posture of a woman who perpetually expects to face challenge, and when she finally breaks down, late in the movie, it’s extraordinarily moving. It’s a performance that leaves you wanting to know more about this woman and her life – more than the intriguing “Woman in Gold” is set to tell.
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