WRITTEN REVIEW – Woman in Gold (2015)
Woman in Gold
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Written by: Alexi Kaye Campbell
Starring: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Brühl, Katie Holmes & Max Irons
Music: Martin Phipps & Hans Zimmer
Release Date: April 10th 2015
So…World War 2. That was a thing, wasn’t it?
Last year, there were at least a dozen movies related to World War 2 and that doesn’t even include non-English language films or straight-to-video releases. 70 years after the worldwide conflict ended, World War 2 has been a goldmine of true stories, whether they take place during the 6 year period or revolving around the aftermath and the personal effect that it had on individuals. The latest is ‘Woman in Gold‘ coming from the Weinstein Company who are known for hard-hitting, sentimental awards-contenders based on true stories.
It seems like a perfect pairing, especially after the Weinstein Company had such success with ‘Philomena‘ in 2013 with ‘Woman in Gold‘ treading on similar grounds with an older character played by a renowned British female actor, teaming up with a younger business-type male comedic actor in order to right previous personal wrong-doings in their lives. This case it’s the theme of stolen art, which also puts it in contention with 2014’s ‘The Monuments Men‘. ‘Woman In Gold’ is combining well-used themes to re-tell a compelling true story, but do all of the pieces come together to make it feel satisfying and new?
The movie opens in the early 2000s with Maria Altmann (Mirren) living in Los Angeles who discovers in the wake of her sister’s passing that her family’s artwork which was stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War during their annex of Austria has yet to be recovered. One of the paintings is of Maria’s aunt; “The Woman in Gold”, which is considered to be the Mona Lisa of Austria. Maria hires an inexperienced lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds) in order to fight the Austrian government who are not willing to let go of their prestigious painting. Maria and Randol must overcome the ghosts of their pasts in order to win justice for both of their family’s legacies.
As with most “based-on-a-true story” films that come out of the Weinstein Company, ‘Woman in Gold‘ benefits by being based on great source material. The story of Maria Altmann is multi-faceted, spans decades, countries and generations and works on many levels in terms of it being a high-profile legal battle and also a very personal battle as Maria felt betrayed by her country and made a mockery of during World War 2, but she has to return back to her homeland in order to seek justice. It works on many levels conceptually, thematically it’s interesting and when you throw in brilliant talent such as Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, director Simon Curtis (director of ‘My Week With Marilyn‘) and award-winning playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell making his feature film debut.
Unfortunately, while ‘Woman in Gold‘ is far from a bad movie, it feels odd that it takes this great pile of promise and turns it into something rather formulaic.
Maybe it’s because ‘Woman in Gold‘ is coming so soon after the success of ‘Philomena‘ but it feels like it’s trying to re-capture the chemistry from Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as opposed to trying to find its own unique hook. It also seems to be hitting as many check-lists as possible throughout the story in order to gain maximum sentimentality from its audience. Obviously media and stories of this nature do aim for emotional resonance and are constructed to manipulate their audiences. Of course they do. It’s called “writing”. But the strings are easily visible in ‘Woman in Gold‘ and it’s a rather uncanny viewing experience because you get the sense that it’s being crafted and calculated as opposed to just letting the story unfold and letting the events speak for themselves.
With ‘Philomena‘ the writing was so strong and the plot so carefully plotted and paced that you didn’t see these strings, but ‘Woman in Gold‘ is more stringent and episodic with its structure which gives the narrative lots of jolts that break the viewer out of the story allowing them to see the creases. One decision to have Maria’s story of her in World War 2 attempting to flee an annexed Austria (with her younger self played brilliantly by Tatiana Maslany) play out through non-linear flashbacks throughout the film seems like a decision to wring out audience sympathy at certain moments as opposed to giving audience the adequate information about Maria’s present-day character.
While the flashback sequences are the best part of the movie, the way they’re parcelled out in segments throughout the movie as Helen Mirren revisits her childhood in Austria prevent us from really understanding her character and what drives her until near the end of the movie. Surprisingly, Ryan Reynolds’ Randol Schoenberg has the exact opposite approach in that his character appears in the movie seemingly fully formed and growing and changing as the events progress. It’s the movie’s portrayal of Randol where it succeeds the most (at least in terms of the present day timeline) as he takes on the case because of the incredible financial rewards should he succeed. But as the movie progresses, he learns that his personal stakes in the outcome are far more pronounced than being able to provide for his family. But to reveal more would probably be a spoiler.
Of course that’s not to say that Helen Mirren does a bad job as the older version of Maria Altmann. Of course she doesn’t. She’s Helen Mirren. Though it does feel like this is the type of role that Mirren could play in her sleep. She’s able to effortlessly nail the light comedy, the humble nature as well as the very stern characteristics of this figure and while Helen Mirren has been glammed up and significantly aged down to portray Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren was 68 when filming ‘Woman in Gold‘, whereas Maria Altmann was in her late-80s during the events of the film) she is a great presence on screen and is always a joy to watch. Though, once again, ‘Woman in Gold‘ seems to be in the shadow of ‘Philomena‘ with Judi Dench giving a career-best performance and really pushing herself with a much deeper and more interesting character (in terms of the movies – I’m not comparing the real life people that both films are based on), whereas with ‘Woman in Gold‘ it feels safer and more broad.
However, what surprised me, was how well the younger-version of Maria Altmann during the WW2 flashbacks acquits herself as Tatiana Maslany almost walks away with the film and steals it from under Helen Mirren’s nose as she is brilliant as the strong-willed woman who is trying to escape from the swiftly crumbling world around her. The scenes with her family members are simply heart-breaking and it’s in these segments where ‘Woman in Gold‘ has the courage of its convictions and does become very affecting.
Also, in an interesting up-ending of World War 2 movies, ‘Woman in Gold‘ portrays many of the Austrian citizens as being very welcoming to the Nazis. Due to the 12A certificate of the movie a lot of the brutality that’s suggested in this movie is neatly brushed under the rug (why they felt the need to not fight for a 15 certificate is beyond me since I’m certain teenagers between the ages of 12 and 14 would NOT be interested in this type of movie unless it was for school research or something), ‘Woman in Gold‘ does portray sequences of mass humiliation as Nazis parade Jewish citizens in the streets while the citizens of Austria cheer them on. Because she witnessed these acts take place, Maria Altmann felt betrayed by her own country as they practically welcomed the Nazis who were responsible with taking her Aunt’s portrait away.
People often forget that one reason the Nazis were able to occupy so much of Europe was because many countries and cities simply let them.
There are some strong supporting players, particularly those in minor roles. Daniel Brühl is reliably good as Hubertus Czernin, an Austrian investigative reporter who helps Maria and Randol in their case. There’s Max Irons as Maria’s husband, the actors portraying Maria’s parents (whose names I simply could not find, so I apologise) are exceptional in their emotional sequences and the German officers are portrayed as particularly slimy and grotesquely unsympathetic.
The movie does seem to not know when to stop with over-the-top sentimentality at points and seems very committed to formula as there are about a dozen inspirational monologues parcelled throughout the film and the movie even has the cliché of making the two main characters fight just so they can put aside their differences once more in order to reach the climax. Even if that’s how the events actually took place in real life, the way it’s implemented in ‘Woman in Gold‘ makes it come across more as an emotional obligation instead of commitment to the source material.
The worst offender for manipulation comes from an over-extended climactic scene which feels completely extraneous and the way it’s filmed and presented is completely out-of-line with everything preceding it. It desperately tries to wring tears out of its audience members but because of the execution of the flashbacks that are superior in almost every way beforehand, it feels like ‘Woman in Gold‘ limps its way to the finish line.
If there’s one way ‘Woman in Gold‘ surpasses ‘Philomena‘ it’s in regards to its production and scale. ‘Woman in Gold‘ is a very handsome movie in terms of cinematography and production design – in particular its use of colours and the gorgeous LA blue-skyline and the white cobbled streets of Austria juxtaposed with the red and white Nazi swastika flags. The muted colours during the WW2 flashbacks also do a great job at setting the mood, especially when contrasted with the lavish gold-filled sets of Maria’s original home and how all the colour gets sucked out of it when the Nazis arrive. The score by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer is serviceable. It reaches pretty far to manipulate the viewers and try and make them cry on cue, but it underscores the movie well.‘Woman in Gold‘ is a good movie, but it feels more calculated then it should indicating a lack of confidence in its own subject matter. Helen Mirren is a household name, but it feels like her portrayal of Maria Altmann feels very restrained and by-the-books, not fully utilising her talents. Ryan Reynolds actually turns out to be the stronger component of this unconventional pairing but that’s mainly because his character, Randol, is characterised more efficiently in the screenplay. And while I don’t mean to labour this point, it does feel like a weaker and less substantial cousin to 2013’s ‘Philomena‘ right down to the nuts and bolts of having a mixed-pairing road trip in the name of personal justice. It’s carried by its strong production, good performances and a solid true-story but it feels overdone in some respects yet disappointingly half-baked in others.
There are very strong themes concerning the legacy of artists and the important of family honour which do pull through in the end, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the Weinstein Company were more focused on making you cry than making you think about its themes of artistic preservation.
I give ‘Woman in Gold‘ 3 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 12th May 15