The true story of Maria Altmann, an Austrian woman who fled the Holocaust and, many years later, sued the Austrian government for the return of family-owned artworks that had been looted by the Nazis, is a great one. It’s also one that has been movingly told before on film, in such documentaries as “The Rape of Europa” (2006). Newly dramatized, with Helen Mirren in the starring role, it unfortunately has lost a bit of its power.
“Woman in Gold” takes its title from the informal name of a 1907 portrait of Maria’s aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt. Stirring at times, soggy and overly sentimental at others, the film moves surprisingly slowly, even though its action, which takes place over many years of legal maneuvering, has been condensed for narrative expediency.
“Woman in Gold” really tells two stories. The first takes place in the recent past, and covers Maria’s pursuit of restitution from her home in Los Angeles, using the services of a young, untested American lawyer, played by Ryan Reynolds in full nerd mode. The second is told in flashback, showing us Maria’s childhood and early life in Vienna, from which she escaped after the annexation of Austria by the Germans.
One of the film’s small pleasures is the sometimes contentious relationship between Randy, Reynolds’s earnest whippersnapper of an attorney, and his somewhat starchy senior-citizen client. It adds a bit of crackle to the film.
The contemporary part of the story sorely needs it. Although Maria jokes to Randy at one point — as they’re dashing off to look for documents in some dusty archive — that “this is like a James Bond film,” it clearly isn’t. The legal story line is sluggish and talky, alternating between scenes of Randy staring intently at a computer screen and passionate conversations between him, Maria and Austrian investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), who assists in their case. Randy — the great-grandson of Holocaust victims — is given one scene in which Reynolds is called upon to emote deeply, but the actor is not up to the task.
The back story, however, which features several non-American actors and mostly German dialogue, is far more gripping, as Maria narrowly escapes with her new husband (Max Irons) in 1938. The young Maria is played by Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, with real soul.
At several times, the screenplay (by playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell) draws connections between what is going on in the past and what’s going on in the present, featuring dialogue meant to suggest that characters from Austria’s past are speaking — metaphorically — to those in modern-day L.A. “Your only enemy is fear,” Adele (Antje Traue) tells her young niece Maria (Nellie Schilling), but she’s really speaking to the adult version of that little girl, who has to overcome her aversion to returning to Austria if she wants her paintings.
It’s easy to guess how this story ends , even if you haven’t read up on the case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s because of the heavy-handedness of the film, which includes clumsily, villainous caricatures of Austrian cultural officials. It gets you where you need to go, but by pushing, instead of gently leading you there.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains anti-Semitism and brief crude language. In English and German with subtitles. 110 minutes.