If ever any justification were needed for star casting in films, Helen Mirren triumphantly provides it in her new film Woman in Gold. To say that she dominates it is a gross understatement; Mirren brings all her considerable gifts to bear in the service of telling an important story about a remarkable woman.
She plays Maria Altmann, an octogenarian born in Austria, but living in Los Angeles at the time the story begins (in 1998). A Holocaust survivor, she is a shrewd, cultured woman who we first encounter at her sister’s funeral. It turns out that 60 years previously the Nazis seized five art treasures from her family home, including The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a luminous masterpiece by Gustav Klimt.
Adele was Maria’s aunt and this painting has gained legendary status in her country of birth; hanging for years in Vienna’s Belvedere gallery, it became known as Austria’s Mona Lisa. The Austrian government desperately wants to keep this symbol of national pride, but Maria belatedly decides she wants to reclaim it for her family.
To further her case, she hires a struggling local lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). He is the grandson of the great composer Arnold Schoenberg, another Austrian who spent many of his later years in Los Angeles. Randy is somewhat out of his depth for a case of this magnitude, but works tirelessly to press Maria’s lawsuit all the way to the Supreme Court.
Woman in Gold thus works on two levels. It is a moving narrative about one woman’s desire to reclaim a heritage cruelly snatched away from her and to redeem her family. On the other, it’s an interesting (if slightly overlong) legal procedural, in which Maria and Randy keep getting knocked back and out-manoeuvred.
But however you choose to regard it, Woman in Gold works because of Mirren’s stellar presence. As Maria, she can be stern, forbidding and irritable – though surprisingly flirtatious and charming at times. She and Reynolds get the occasional ‘odd couple’ comic scene that emphasises the differences between them. These are not overplayed, and thankfully so – there’s only one real star in this pairing. Reynolds is a capable actor, but he’s also a little colourless – one might have expected Schoenberg’s grandson to have inherited a little more gravitas.
The film flashes back to wartime Vienna, depicting the cultured luxury in which Maria grew up, and soberly illustrating how Austria crumbled beneath the forceful will of the Nazis. It is made clear that Maria Altmann’s past was a hugely traumatic one, which it took remarkable courage to confront once more in later years.
It is all impressively photographed by Ross Emery, and British director Simon Curtis keeps a tight rein on the multi-faceted story, with all its time-shifts. A talented supporting cast includes Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a sparky Tatiana Maslany as the young Maria, and Elizabeth McGovern (yes, of Downton Abbey fame) as a judge.
Woman in Gold is a decent, workmanlike film with a gripping story and an important theme – reparation of art works looted by the Nazis is a righteous cause. This film compares favourably to last year’s Monuments Men, which had similar subject matter but a curious insensitivity and tone-deafness towards it.
I don’t mean to disparage Woman in Gold in any way, but it could only be a lesser film without this lead actress. Mirren is quite wondrous here, inhabiting the character of Maria with confidence and grace. These days we lead the world with our veteran film acting dames – Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It would be no surprise to see Dame Helen picking up a handful of awards for this role next year.