Half courtroom drama, half historic snapshot, “The Woman in Gold” overestimates its central story’s intrigue and peppers in its most powerful, redeeming moments almost as an afterthought. After learning that the Austrian government is beginning an art reparations program for families to reclaim stolen art, Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, “The Queen”) enlists the help of young, struggling lawyer Randol Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds, “The Proposal”) to help her retrieve a painting of her beloved Aunt Adele that was stolen from her family by the Nazis prior to WWII. However, while the painting is simply a portrait of her aunt to Maria, it is also one of Austria’s most prized possessions, a masterpiece by Gustav Klimt, and it takes years of political maneuvering to work the painting back into Maria’s possession. As Altmann and Schoenburg weave their way through the legal roadblocks standing between them and the Austrian government, Maria is forced to face her harrowing past, bringing Randol to an understanding of his own ancestry in the process.

The Woman in Gold

Quality 16, The Michigan Theater
BBC Films

The film’s strength lies in its ability to seamlessly navigate between Maria’s past and present. Skipping over the distant gazes, echoing words and hazy effects that seem to preclude most wartime flashbacks in film, “The Woman in Gold” easily moves into scenes of Maria’s memories in a way that feels completely believable, leaving the audience with a respect for Mirren’s character that doesn’t seem formulaic or forced. The film at first eases into the flashbacks as Maria encounters herself as a child on the streets she grew up on, later fully immersing itself in her memories as she confronts the spaces that housed the most significant moments of her life in Vienna. The scenes of Maria’s opulent Vienna lifestyle, first encounters with the Nazi party and eventual escape to America add a fuel to a story that would otherwise easily deflate after the first few nervy courtroom scenes. The young Maria’s (Tatiana Maslany, “Orphan Black”) dynamic portrayal provides a perfect counterpart to Mirren’s tenacious older woman fighting to reconcile herself with the past.

The flashbacks float in a ghostly, pale color palette that gives a cloyingly ominous tone to even Maria’s happiest memories, like dancing with her family on her wedding day. As we watch her picturesque life unravel around her, the chill of the images becomes more apparent, especially when placed against the warm shine of the gilded portrait of her aunt she is working to reclaim. We come to understand the painting as much more than just a piece of art; a symbol of the warmth that was leeched from her life by the Nazis, something that, even when it is reclaimed, can’t change the events of the past.

Ryan Reynolds, however, is a strange choice for the reluctant lawyer who Maria enlists to handle her case, undermining the film’s solemn intentions and making a predictable shuffle through his emotional range. It’s difficult to take his schoolboy cuteness seriously given his past filmography, and while this does add an element of accessibility to a film that otherwise might appeal to a smaller, more serious crowd, it ultimately takes away from the film’s authenticity. Moving from stressed to defeated to angry to elated with a disappointingly predictable rhythm, Reynolds attempts to hide the heart he wears on his sleeve while actually just disguising it with a pair of cheap wire frames.

While the film’s focus seems to be misplaced on the long, asymmetric legal battle between a novice lawyer, his old family friend and the Austrian government, its treatment of memory and the past is able to breathe life into the slower side of the story, with one infamous portrait hanging precariously in the chasm between then and now.

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