“Woman in Gold” has a rich story to tell. The true account of Maria Altmann’s fight to reclaim a famed Gustav Klimt painting of her aunt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” first stolen by the Nazis and then appropriated by Austria after the war, is laced with riveting history, deep and complex emotion, and fascinating bureaucracy. Yet director Simon Curtis’ rendering of Altmann’s tale, though respectful and pretty, is somehow lifeless.
There is almost too much here for a single movie. Curtis, who charmed with his Marilyn Monroe slice of life “My Week with Marilyn,” relies on a combination of flashbacks of Maria’s pre-war life in Vienna and the present day tick-tock of her legal quest to take ownership of the painting.
Played in the present by Helen Mirren, Maria is a prickly woman with a thick Austrian accent. She owns a boutique in a fancy part of Los Angeles and, following the death of her sister, has made up her mind that she would like to claim what is hers. The man she convinces to help her is Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a dull corporate lawyer with a prestigious pedigree and a few poor career choices on his resume.
It’s been more than 60 years since Maria fled Austria during World War II and she is sickened by the thought of returning, refusing to even speak the language when they arrive abroad to plead their case. In Vienna, they’re helped by a young journalist (Daniel Brühl) who functions mostly as a human exposition vehicle.
With two actors as charming as Mirren and Reynolds anchoring the story, it’s a bit disarming that their charisma never really manages to energize the sluggish tale. Part of that is for effect — they’re supposed to grow to love and admire one another while he learns to respect her history — but the eventual payoff doesn’t connect. These characters aren’t equipped to deliver the lively generational comedy that this story so desperately needs.
The flashbacks, ranging from Maria’s childhood to her early 20s (“Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany), are meant to contextualize Maria’s plight. We see a spirited girl’s life upended by the war, the brutality of the Nazi regime and the faceless indifference of her fellow countrymen. But, seeped in the obligatory sepia and lace, these sequences are as adventurous as a paint-by-numbers, with the exception of a heart-pounding chase sequence.
A recurring theme throughout the film is that everyone has forgotten the horrors of the Holocaust — that no one really cares about the living history of so many. It’s an interesting question, but “Woman in Gold” doesn’t have the guts to go too deep on that or any of the complexities around Maria’s quest.
Also, instead of engaging in any dialogue about the idea of reclamation, the film has a predetermined moral narrative. From the beginning, the Austrians are portrayed as thieving, greedy, petty and wholly disinterested in the past traumas of its exiled citizens.
It doesn’t even really function as a thrilling legal drama, even when they reach the Supreme Court of the United States. Every victory and “ah-ha” moment plays like a shrug. Perhaps the lesson is that there is no actual triumph in reclamation.
As for Randy, with a wife and a baby at home and a brand new job at a prestigious firm on the line, he has no reason to get tangled up with Maria. At one point he cries that he only said yes because he discovered the worth of the paintings, but as his professional life caves in around this long fight, his motives become even more bewildering. The movie tells us that he matures, but it fails to show it in a meaningful way.
“Woman in Gold” reaches for glossy, based-on-a-true-story cinematic heights with the depth of one of its made-for-television counterparts.