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Review: 'Woman in Gold' tries to coast on the presence of Helen Mirren

A stirring but dry real-life tale gets transformed into a pedestrian courtroom battle, with equally pedestrian scenes of Holocaust horrors.

Woman in GoldWoman in Gold

‘Woman in Gold’
Director:
Simon Curtis
Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Great events don’t necessarily make great stories. Case in point: the tale of Maria Altmann, an Austrian woman who escaped the Holocaust, relocated to Los Angeles and, when she when in her 80s, sought to retrieve a number of paintings belonging to her family that were stolen by the Nazis and put in Austrian hands. Among these were several by Gustav Klimt, including his most famous work, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which is in fact a gold-specked eyesore of her aunt. It took years and several court cases, including a visit to the American Supreme Court, for her to get them back from the oddly rigid Austrian government, but she did it, and that’s great.

But how does one translate this convoluted and dryly court-heavy tale into a simple popcorn entertainment? Why would one? The tact adopted by the makers of “Woman in Gold” amounts to charming one’s way out of one’s problems — hoping flashy distractions will serve to avert audience attention away from the lack of basic dramatic devices, including a story that’s too simple plus weak or non-existent character arcs. The flashiest trinket is its star: Helen Mirren, in full-on light comic mode as a saucy, flirtatious Maria. She gets to casually tell off people who rub her the wrong way, crack one-liners upon little triumphs and generally coast on her general Helen Mirren-ness.

What she doesn’t get to do is dig into a complicated role. Every now and then Maria gets to look ashen as she remembers the trauma of her past — the relatives and friends lost to the war, the civilization in which she sprang displaced and destroyed, the jerks who are standing in her way. But she never has to make any real decisions. Maria is in the right from the start, and what follows is merely a case of her sometimes giving up on a seemingly endless battle against stubborn forces before springing back into action. Mirren underplays heroically, and brings the depth of feeling absent from the shallow script, but the role makes her turn as a snooty semi-racist in “The Hundred Foot Journey” look like it was scribbled by Ibsen.

Still, better no character arc than the limp one given Maria’s partner in crime: Ryan Reynolds’ Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Arnold), her lawyer and an inexperienced, fumbling one who has to learn how to overcome the odds, grow a pair and assert himself in front of scary Austrian bureaucrats. It’s a stock characterization, and it helps turn a real-life story into a mere slobs-vs.-snobs battle — or, in this case, a snobs-vs.-snobbier-snobs one, with the Austrian powers mere hissable villains, not even allowed a second to explain why on Earth they would oppose an old woman simply trying to reclaim Nazi-plundered goods.

The other thing “Woman in Gold” does to pad out its length is hypothetically more noble: Maria’s story is juxtaposed with periodic flashbacks to her youth in Vienna, depicting a moneyed and cultured existence — her father (Allan Corduner) likes to take the pressure of looming Nazi forces by playing the cello — slowly laid to waste. But these scenes too are stock: pedestrian, overly tasteful views of horrors moviegoers have seen a million times before, distinguishable in the Holocaust cinema cannon only because it focuses almost exclusively on wealth porn. Poor Tatiana Maslany: Jessica Chastain, when she played young Helen Mirren in “The Debt,” had a full character to explore. As the 20-something Maria, Maslany barely gets a chance to register.

There’s one crackerjack suspense set piece, in which Maria eludes the Nazis and makes it out of Vienna. But that a film about the Holocaust only comes to life when it’s thrilling — or when Mirren is flinging quips — is questionable in the extreme. Like everything watchable about “Woman in Gold,” it’s a mere cheap, desperate distraction.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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