Dave's Rating:

2.0

Mirren and no more

Woman in Gold is the story of a battle waged over a stolen piece of art history. But in its execution it is the story of an actor, Helen Mirren, saving a film from irrelevance.

Gustav Klimt's painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, was stolen by the Nazis when they took over Austria. In 1998, Bloch-Bauer's niece, Maria Altmann (portrayed here by Mirren), enlisted the services of young lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), beginning a legal battle to reclaim the painting from the Austrian government. That case is detailed in Anne-Marie O'Connor's book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Other books on the subject of Nazi art theft, among them The Rape of Europa, by Lynn H. Nicholas (which became a 2006 documentary feature), and The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, detailed the recovery of many of those stolen works. The latter also became a film, a muddled effort from director George Clooney.

More muddle, then, arrives with this docudrama. True stories of Nazi injustice and decades-late restitution, where they relate to art theft, require an exacting approach, not only to the complexities of international law, but to the enormity of Nazi crimes and the agony suffered by the victims of that brutal regime. Woman In Gold splits the difference, delivering long stretches of dry, contemporary legal wrangling and lifeless sympathy-building, and a misplaced heavy hand with flashbacks to the Bloch-Bauers' life in Nazi-occupied Austria.

The overplay/underplay dilemma plagues director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn, another wayward, unaffecting brush with history), who takes the story and wanders, spending the running time trying to strengthen up its weaker links. The scenes in pre-war Austria depict anti-Semitic hatred but fail to escalate suspense for the fate of the Bloch-Bauer family. Meanwhile, the weeping epiphanies of Schoenberg, as he learns empathy for his client, attempt to manufacture emotional climaxes the script (from first time screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell) doesn't know how to build.

That leaves it to Mirren, whose impeccable sense of what works and what doesn't never fails her, even when the movie surrounding her threatens to flatline. She is warm, funny, and wise, finding the angry, grieving core in the defiant Maria. Reynolds can do little more than stand next to her and watch it unfold. She is the reason to see the film. For anything more than that, there's always a good book.

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