Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Charles Dance
Directed by: Simon Curtis
With the aid of a nerdy lawyer, an elderly woman sues an Austrian museum to retrieve her family’s stolen paintings. No, she is not the Woman in Gold, but her long deceased aunt is, and to Maria Altmann (Dame Helen Mirren) the painting, referred to as both a national treasure and the Austrian Mona Lisa has a sentimental value that transcends its 100 million dollar appraisal.Painted by Gustav Klimt in 1907, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and several other masterpieces were taken from her family home by the Nazis when Altmann was a young bride (Tatiana Maslany in flashback). Altmann and her husband eventually escaped Austria, leaving behind her beloved extended family.Flash forward to 1998 when the widowed Altmann, now living in Southern California, enlists the aid of mild-mannered attorney Randol Schoenberg -grandson of classical composer Arnold Schoenberg – to start legal proceedings in order to get the painting back. To accomplish this, Altmann must accompany Schoenberg back to Vienna (where she vowed she’d NEVER revisit) for face-to-face meetings with Austrian officials from the Belvedere Gallery where the painting now hangs, in an effort to persuade them of her legal right to reclaim it. Austrian reporter (Daniel Brühl) advises the pair on what to expect (a polite, but repeated “NO” to all requests for restitution). The venture results in a barrage of polite dismissals and seemingly impossible legal and financial hurdles. Altmann and Schoenberg leave discouraged and divided about their next step.Schoenberg experiences some epiphanies about his own identity (his grandfather was a Nazi refugee, too) that kick starts his drive to argue Altmann’s case. The pair ultimately takes the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.Pre-war flashback sequences illustrate Altmann’s cherished early years and her family’s elegant lifestyle, disrupted by Nazi persecution, theft, and house arrest. Altmann’s escape from Austria and her present day return to her childhood home (now converted into business offices) are two of the films most compelling sequences.Mirren and Maslany bring Altmann’s story to the screen with mesmerizing poignancy and determination. Though not the titular woman, Mirren is still golden as the pragmatic, feisty, haunted survivor. Reynolds’ Schoenberg seems bewildered and ineffectual, gaining strength later in the film. His wife (Katie Holmes) seems to serve the singular purpose of illustrating daunting financial responsibilities as his family grows, while Brühl is a mouthpiece for the story’s narrative from the Austrian side. Jonathan Pryce makes a short but crucial appearance s Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court.Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) allows for a somewhat dull treatment of an important subject, as mild mannered in places as Schoenberg himself. The story is fascinating and true, yet the film hits its mark only periodically. This is actor Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first feature-length script, apparent in scenes, especially present-day, that tend to drag with clichéd dialogue and forced humor that rings false within the film’s serious backdrop. Still, it’s worth seeing for the historical significance and for the performances of the two women that portray Maria Altmann, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 94. It’s a story of love, loss, family, justice, and memories as precious and delicate as the gold leaf that adorns sections of “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.”It’s Altmann, sharing her family album through paint, persecution, politics, and perseverance.