The Weinstein Company has a real knack for producing films portraying complex moments in history and reducing them down to simple morality tales, often through the ostensibly moral lens of a court battle. Woman In Gold is certainly no exception to their formula, representing an old woman’s reclamation of stolen artwork from the Austrian government as an underdog battle against the evils of Old World prejudices. And consequently, the whole experience feels just a bit trite.
Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, a Holocaust survivor driven out of Austria. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and Maria is an old woman who discovers through family documents that the Austrian government is in possession of paintings, including the titular “Woman In Gold,” that had belonged to her family and had been taken by the Nazis, so she decides that she wants to make a stand to get them back. She enlists the help of a rookie attorney named Randol Schoenberg, played by a dully ineffectual Ryan Reynolds, whose struggle through the court system is compounded by uphill precedential battles and a distinct lack of support from his employing firm.
Where the film actually shines the most is in a concurrent plotline flashing back to Austria as the Nazis are taking over. Though these scenes aren’t dissimilar from any other film where the oppressive Reich begins committing atrocities in occupied states, the film makes a point of demonstrating that the Austrian government welcomes the Nazis with open arms, making Maria’s struggle to retrieve her family’s paintings one of forcing Austria to admit that they were in the wrong by not resisting. There’s a certain poignancy to this that makes the film emotionally resonate where other films using the same formula are lacking.
Alas, though, this is still a Weinstein formula piece, and there’s nothing else about this film that really stands out. The plot beats are predictable as ever, as the biggest struggle seems to be in not giving up in the face of insurmountable odds. Mirren is in the same sort of role she’s always in: boisterous, no-nonsense, and loveable in a grandmotherly way. And while Reynolds is pretty ineffectual at breathing any sort of interesting life into Randol’s character, he’s written as a determined, hardworking underdog that you can’t help but root for, even if the complexities of his legal battles will escape you. And these aren’t really bad things, but they are certainly boring things, particularly if you’re one to recognize genre tropes and how generic writing does nothing to subvert them.
So does that make Woman In Gold a good film by default? For the purposes of labelling, I must begrudgingly say yes, as there is nothing outright wrong or offensive to this film, and it did even manage to hold my interest in the flashback scenes. But I also feel like I’ve seen this film a million times before, and it’s not one I’m very enthusiastic about recommending. If the plot synopsis interests you, you might have a decently enjoyable couple of hours ahead of you. If not, I’m not going to try to convince you otherwise.