The Weinstein Company’s latest period piece tells the incredible true story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a WWII refugee who, with the help of attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), hopes to reclaim a painting that the Nazis seized from her family home during their occupation of Austria. This is a painting that depicts her beautiful Aunt Adele, a painting that once was personal, but soon became the symbol of a nation, a painting of the woman in gold. The story already is, in and of itself, a remarkable, inspiring tale of art, justice, and remembrance of the past. However, the film as a whole seems to lack that distinct quality that makes the true story so striking, so momentous. Still, thanks to Helen Mirren, the film redeems itself in fleeting moments that warrants the title, “woman in gold.”
The year is 1998 when we meet Helen Mirren’s Maria. She is poised, elegant, and has a resilience that courses through her whole being. A resilience that comes from her past, her culture. Her sister has just passed away, and as she’s perusing through her belongings, she eventually finds paperwork that could potentially lead her to reclaim five pieces of artwork, by the great Gustav Klimpt, that once graced her childhood home in Vienna. One of these pieces is the titular woman in gold, which is a portrait of her beloved aunt Adele. She needs assistance with all the legal jargon, so she enlists the help of a family friend, who’s son happens to be a lawyer. Randy Schoenberg is the complete opposite of Maria. He is awkward, messy, and is ignorant of his heritage. When first approached by Maria about her case, he is hesitant. He knows nothing about art restitution, and finds no interest in the issue, but all of that changes when he finds that the painting is worth over 100 million dollars.
Through their long and strenuous battle for the artwork against the government of Austria, the film intermittently utilizes flashbacks in order to tell the story of a young Maria (brilliantly played by Tatiana Maslany), her husband, Fritz (Max Irons), and the family she had to leave behind due to the Nazi invasion. Apart from Helen Mirren, this is where the film truly strikes gold. Not only is it compelling to see a different kind of plight that this individual had to endure, the very plight that links to her current dilemma, but we also are reminded that the past is forever laced with the present. All we have to do is remember. As the story progresses, Randy becomes all too aware of this fact. He too has roots in Vienna, and slowly he learns the gravity of the past on the present.
As one of the protagonists, Ryan Reynolds unfortunately gives a dull performance next to the shining Helen Mirren. Whereas she fully becomes Maria down to her core, Reynolds merely acts as Randy, giving us a forced representation of this person. Still, the film’s underlying message of never forgetting the past is powerful. As Maria is about to flee the country and leave her family behind, her father asks only one thing of her: to remember. As an audience, we might not give this film much thought long after we have seen it, but as Maria remembers, we will surely remember the beauty with which the past comes alive right before her eyes. The way she remembers her father playing the cello in the corner of the room, her husband happily singing and dancing on their wedding night, her aunt putting on her favorite gold necklace, will make us remember the past, make us remember the woman in gold.
IN THEATERS TODAY