A Portrait Both Past and Present

Woman in Gold
(USA/UK, 109 min.)
Dir. Simon Curtis, Writ. Alexi Kaye Campbell
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Tatiana Maslany, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Max Irons.
Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in Woman in Gold.
Photo: Robert Viglasky / eOne Films

The spirit of Philomena lives on in Woman in Gold! This crowd-pleasing historical dramedy puts Dame Helen Mirren in Dame Judi Dench’s shoes as Maria Altmann takes a cue from Philomena Lee by confronting the past to find peace in the present. Altmann enlists the help of rookie lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, an unexpected co-star for Mirren) to reclaim a painting of her aunt Adele that was taken decades before and was assumed to be lost to an Austrian museum forever until new details surfaced in the letters of Altmann’s late sister. The case isn’t so simple, though, since said painting is Gustav Klimt’s famous “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which is valued at over $130 million, and it was stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

This painting therefore holds a story much larger than that which is etched on the placard of the museum wall. Woman in Gold might be as conventional and as pleasant as a paint-by-numbers portrait, but it smartly brings the fuller picture as it paints the backstory of Maria and Adele’s plight. Maria tells a story of a greater collective loss as she builds a case and argues why Austria should surrender the portrait. The painting becomes a symbol of Austria’s participation in the atrocities of Nazism as Maria revisits the memories that she wants to reconcile by bringing the truth behind the prized painting to light. Woman weaves past and present as Maria relives her final days in Austria, and the contrast draws out the greater fight in Maria’s case: she wants Austria to admit its ongoing complicity in Nazism and anti-Semitism by denying people like her their legitimate connections to their homeland, their pasts, and their families.

Mirren and Reynolds are a fun odd couple as the unlikely duo of actors gamely plays the mismatched pair. Woman in Gold frequently soars thanks to the calibre of the performances and Mirren is characteristically strong as the film lets her appeal to a range of heartstrings at which she tugs warmly and effortlessly. See a hint of Queen Elizabeth II in Mirren’s stately poise as she presents a woman who carries herself with confidence, character, and dignity: this headstrong Maria holds the same grace as the woman of Klimt’s painting, which offers further unspoken evidence of the painting’s rightful owner. There’s a dash of Meryl Streep’s Julia Child, too, in the larger-than-life comedic side of Maria Altmann that frequently makes Woman in Gold a winner. Mirren inflects her character with a grand curmudgeonliness and makes Maria the perfect granny to Reynolds’ plucky, directionless upstart. Canadian rising star Tatiana Maslany plays the young Maria Altman in the wartime scenes, and she effectively matches Mirren’s spunkiness and strength that defines Maria throughout the film.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) competently balances the bubbliness of the contemporary storyline with the comparatively grimmer scenes of the past. The flashbacks emphasize family, heritage, legacy, and tradition as Maria recalls her fondest memories with her beloved parents who died in the Holocaust and her aunt Adele (played by Antje Traue) who inspired Klimt with her class, grace, and charm. Maria shares these same traits with Randol as their lawsuit takes her back to Vienna for the first time since the war, which encourages her to teach the young man the heritage he seems to have forgotten. Maria, after all, seeks a landmark case to help people remember their past.

The heart of Maria’s plight seeks to make everyone feel safe and welcome at home, and to remember how "Adele" found its way into the Austrian government’s possession so that such injustices do not happen again. They’re happening now, though, just as Woman in Gold reaches a new audience and the context in which the film finds itself should give pause for more consideration than the film received previously when it premiered at Berlin earlier this year. As both Marias persevere against the hard blow of Nazism, Woman in Gold finds a relevance to today as newspapers and media outlets abound with stories of a new law that grants American business owners the right to deny service on the basis of religion. While it’s true that the logic behind Indiana’s Religious Liberty Law doesn’t hold the same logic or methodology (and, one could argue, severity) of the Holocaust, one can’t help but feel the resonance as young Maria sees her neighbours violated and humiliated simply for being who they are. Governments don’t learn and history seems bound to repeat itself in various guises, but this one woman’s quest to bring peace is a lesson worth taking. Woman in Gold might be an enjoyable lark, but it’s an unexpectedly urgent one as well.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Woman in Gold is now playing in limited release.
It screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until April 19.
And at The Mayfair until May 28.