Film review of the true-life drama directed by Simon Curtis and starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds about an elderly Jewish woman suing the Austrian government to reclaim priceless art stolen from her family during WWII.
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Director: Simon Curtis. BBC Films/Origin/2nd District. (PG).
Cast & credits
Producers: David M. Thompson, Kris Thykier.
Writer: Alexi Kay Campbell.
Camera: Ross Emery.
Music: Martin Phipps, Hans Zimmer.
Sets: Jim Clay.
Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany, Max Irons, Charles Dance, Antje Traue, Elizabeth McGovern, Frances Fisher, Jonathan Pryce, Ben Miles.
Maria Altmann (Mirren) is in her eighties and runs a successful boutique clothing store in Beverley Hills. She approaches Randol, a young, inexperienced but talented lawyer (Reynolds) to help her with an extraordinary case – to reclaim the priceless ‘Woman In Gold’ painting by Gustav Klimt, which features the image of her long-dead Aunt, who posed for Klimt and that this belongs to her family. Randol has passion and a sense of decency so the two begin a long and arduous legal journey to help get the painting back, as Mirren faces the ghosts of her past.
Check out the official trailer.
One of the more embarrassing sagas of World War II is the ongoing fight of many Jewish families who seek restitution for art and treasures stolen from them during the conflict. According to this film, it is estimated that up to 100,000 individual pieces are yet to be returned to their original owners.
Gustav Klimt’s evocative, shimmering titular portrait was one of the most famous and expensive additions to this catalogue and she forms the glittering centre of this emotional and painful fight by one person against ‘the mann’.
Mirren is in entertaining, queenly form again but replaces the austere, rigidly British formality of Elizabeth II with the amusing bluntness and common sense of an Austrian ex-pat. She can play this type of grumpy-on-the-outside but warm-and-grandmotherly-on-the-inside roles with her talent gagged and tied behind her back.
She oozes confidence as she toys and flirts with her handsome co-star (there’s no mistaking that glint in her eyes when they first meet).
There are questions about the writing and performance. Would a well-bred, Austrian octogenarian lady suddenly grab the hand of a young man who is essentially a stranger on a plane? Possibly not.
Would someone, having worked so hard to remove all trace of her former nationality, still have a heavy Germanic accent after nearly 60 years living in America and having never returned home? I doubt it, but ignore the sharp mannerisms and precise acting. Mirren’s Maria may have a touch of showmanship and not be 100% convincing, but she will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.
Reynolds is picking some interesting roles of late and despite being in the less flashy role, still impresses as the enthusiastic American clashing with the Austrian Alps. Note the omnipresent mountain of legal boxes in his modern office, compared with the space and classical beauty of Vienna.
He might not be as greedy a trophy hunter he claims to be, but passion bursts forth from him when butting heads with legal and political superiors.
Bruhl plays a calm and upright part as the seemingly shifty investigative journalist supporting her case. In the film he appears out of nowhere, but in real-life he contacted Maria and started the whole process for her (see Guardian obituary of Altmann for more).
There’s also nice and brief roles for a surprisingly cast Holmes as Reynolds’ commendably practical and supportive wife, calmly picking out a suit for his impending court appearance as she goes into labour, having already planned her hospital trip. Pryce raises some guffaws as a Supreme Court Judge better suited to the stand-up comedy circuit.
Director Curtis ensures that the tension of the final decision on who should have the painting is nicely wound up, this despite the at-times yawn inducing legalistic dialogue. He also creates a lovely and touching final scene as Mirren visits her families former home, imagining scenes of past joy, interacting with them and dancing and clapping at her wedding to Irons.