It’s not easy to take notes in the dark, but when reviewing a movie, you try to keep the facts straight or retain the kernel of a thought. During Woman of Gold, however, my notes wandered to tallying flashbacks. Woman of Gold has a whole lot of them. Inside its 109-minute frame, there are approximately 20 flashbacks; memories intruding upon modern reality, actual backstories, insert shots of the past — why, there’s even a flashy nightmare. It’s a problem when you start noticing structural techniques like that, because it feels like you’re looking at something one piece at a time. Woman in Gold, like its lead, struggles to feel whole.
Woman of Gold is a courtroom historical drama that’s pure of heart yet familiar, and, more problematically, repetitive. It’s a take-‘em-on, feel-good true story done too fast. It’s a vanilla, studio-driven take on a true legal battle. One has to imagine Harvey Weinstein holding this in his left hand, and Imitation Game on the right, deciding to run the former for Oscar season 2014. “British one’s stuffier, has that modern twist … yeah, it’s easier to market, go with that one; take 15 minutes off the Woman and dump her in spring,” he might have said.
So what do we have on the docket? The invaluable Helen Mirren is Maria Altmann, a real-life Nazi occupation escapee originally from Vienna. The Altmann family was one of many tread on by the Nazis. The Altmanns’ art and belongings were claimed by the fascist party, and among the personal effects taken was the now legendary 1907 Gustav Klimt painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” It’s the pretty, gold-filleted one on postcards at seemingly every modern museum.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was Altmann’s high-society aunt. Her portrait belonged to Altmann’s family, but the Austrian government has deemed it the country’s through bureaucratic stone-walling. In reality, this nasty game of Nazi “yoink!” tallied upwards of 100,000 stolen pieces of art, taken forever from families. It’s deeply upsetting.
In Gold, Altmann suffers enough, whether at the hand of stock movie villain Nazis or some of the snootiest Austrian bad guys you’ll see this side of an Indiana Jones sequel. (In all honesty, I was waiting for one of the museum committee people to tell Mirren, “Vee haff vays of making you give us zat painting,” the lines between good and bad are so definite.)
Altmann contacts a young lawyer of Austrian-Jewish lineage, Randol Schoenberg (an oddly placed Ryan Reynolds), to see if there’s a legal case. Perhaps a nice and lengthy lawsuit could give her some form of peace of mind. Or 100 million dollars. Who knows? Altmann and Shoenberg face off with the Austrian government, the Supreme Court, fancy lawyers, and sneering lawyers just to get her paintings back. After all, they are her right.
Everything is sufficiently paced, assembled, yet too watered down and patchy. Legal obstacle upon obstacle, flashbacks layered upon flashbacks, and for what? Woman in Gold is swift and never goes for the big courtroom speech or the grand dramatic gesture. It’s comprised of half a dozen little speeches, or a dozen little dramatic beats, all at the cost of painting something richer. In museum terms, it gazes at 30 pieces roughly three minutes at a time. It might have been better off taking a full hour with Klimt’s work, or, in essence, Altmann’s story. Gold plays out like a filmic series of check-lists for legal and historical drama. It’ll fit nicely into an AP Art History curriculum on a rainy day — only 20 flashbacks to go once you start.