Some actors are almost always fun to watch, no matter what the film. Helen Mirren is one. The Oscar-winning performer ("The Queen") spices up the bio-pic "Woman in Gold," which I reviewed for Spokane Public Radio. Following is a transcription of my review:
I distrust inspired-by-real-life movie adaptations, especially those that attempt to reflect history. All too often they feature splashy casting, boast production values that seem drawn directly from the Masterpiece Theater library, and smooth out rough edges – in character, in plot and most of all in complexity – in an effort to make the final product fit the mold of palatable mainstream product.
“Woman in Gold,” which tells the story of an Austrian woman’s fight to reclaim art stolen six decades before by Nazi authorities, does all the above. Our protagonist, Maria Altmann, is played by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. Production designer Jim Clay filled the same position on the 2012 BBC production of “Great Expectations.” And the script that Alexi Kaye Campbell wrote makes the legal issues addressed by your average “L.A. Law” episode look like a Supreme Court brief.
All that said, “Woman in Gold” is a surprisingly moving film. Director Simon Curtis, the same filmmaker who besides enjoying his own share of BBC-associated credits gave us 2011’s “My Week With Marilyn,” has crafted a slick, skillful and – yes, palatably mainstream – study of pain and angst, courage and long-delayed justice.
The film’s title refers to the 1907 painting by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – who was Maria Altmann’s aunt. Bloch-Bauer died in 1925, and her widower husband fled Austria when German annexed Austria in 1938 – leading to all his possessions, including Woman in Gold, being seized by the Nazis.
Campbell’s screenplay tells two stories at once: We follow the young Altmann, played in part by “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany, from her childhood memories of her aunt to her breathless escape from Austria. And we follow the elder Altmann, now played by Mirren, as she consults with a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg – played by Ryan Reynolds – about getting the paintings back.
The problem: They’re hanging in Vienna’s national art gallery. And a document, written by Bloch-Bauer, indicates that her intent was for them – especially “Woman in Gold” – to stay there. And so the film’s natural sense of tension is two-fold: How daring will Altmann’s escape be, and can the law ever give her rightful recompense?
Question is, how much of all this is real? Well, the basic facts, at least. Turns out there was a legal basis for Altmann’s suit, which Schoenberg argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court – though the case was ultimately resolved through independent arbitration. But as with all Hollywood versions of real-life stories, facts have been both stretched and invented – from a farfetched escape through gunfire to the casting of Reynolds to play the smallish, balding Schoenberg. Invention, though, is what we expect from Hollywood.
The question is, can some sense of authentic drama shine through all the gloss? Mirren, who can make the most absurd dialogue seem believable, does her best to make sure that it does. As does Reynolds who, though cast against type, is surprisingly good.
Credit director Curtis, too. It’s not easy to make mainstream melodrama look this good.