The woman in gold in the true story Woman in Gold was Adele Bloch-Bauer, a patron of the arts in turn-of-the-century Vienna, a regal beauty who posed for Gustav Klimt. Her portrait hung in the family's apartment on the Elisabethstrasse until March 1938, when Hitler's Third Reich annexed Austria. The lives of the city's thriving Jewish community were forever changed, and the Klimt, along with other artwork, jewelry, and valuables belonging to the Bloch-Bauers, was seized by the Nazis.
After World War II, the painting found its way to the national museum, where it hung for decades. Austria's Mona Lisa. Enter Maria Altmann, Adele's niece, who as a young bride on the eve of war had escaped Europe, ultimately landing in Los Angeles. Altmann as sprightly octogenarian is played by Helen Mirren.
"What do you know about art restitution?" she asks an inexperienced California lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), thinking that perhaps it's time to get back what is rightfully hers.
He doesn't know much.
With that, the Simon Curtis-directed film, chronicling Altmann and Schoenberg's five-year-plus battle in courtrooms from California to Washington to Vienna, is off and running. Similar in ways to Philomena - a young man accompanying an older woman on a journey through history, each learning from the other - Woman in Gold finds Mirren delivering her lines with bite and humor and a Bavarian lilt. Her Maria is a stolid heroine whose adventures as a refugee are revealed in flashback (Tatiana Maslany plays her as a young woman). When the film returns to the present tense (the first decade of the new millennium), defiance and determination well up in Mirren's eyes.
Aiding Maria and "Randy" Schoenberg (grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg) in their daunting pursuit is Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), an investigative journalist on a mission to expose his country's culpability during Hitler's reign.
For a film with such dark themes, Woman in Gold has an almost jaunty step. Mirren, Reynolds, and Brühl each get their chance to display apt emotions - rage, regret, sadness, shame, the pluck to stand up to powerful officials and high-priced lawyers. But Curtis, whose first feature as a director was the (real-life) Hollywood fairy tale My Week With Marilyn, doesn't appear to have a gravitas gear. Even when he heads into a Holocaust flashback, the movie hums along, well-oiled, heading for triumph. The transformation of Reynold's lawyer from a bumbler and stumbler to a victorious litigator, sticking it to an entire nation, is the stuff of a Frank Capra/Jimmy Stewart pic.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Woman in Gold has a great story to tell, and the filmmakers have opted for the safest, slickest way to tell it.
Woman in Gold *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Simon Curtis. With Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes. Distributed by the Weinstein Co.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.