A powerful true-life tale becomes the stuff of workaday drama in ‘Woman in Gold’. A dusky lady looks quizzically out from a mosaic of gold leaf in the Klimt canvas dubbed ‘Austria’s Mona Lisa’. But for elderly LA resident Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), it’s a portrait of her Aunt Adele, and a painful reminder of the lives, home and property wrenched from her Jewish family during the Nazi annexation of Austria.
In the late 1990s, changes in Austrian law allowed the handing back of looted treasures to their owners. So Mirren’s crotchety but indefatigable Maria and a junior lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) begin an against-the-odds battle against Vienna’s state-run Belvedere Gallery.
Mirren and Reynolds offer a capable comic odd couple, while legal processes are reduced to a string of neat soundbites. Maria’s return to Vienna prompts ungainly flashbacks, chocolate-boxy when recreating the family’s gilded home life, powerful in depicting Austria’s embrace of the Nazi ideology.
Mirren’s performance movingly evokes the travails and rewards of seeking an accommodation with a nightmare past. Yet the clunky, often superficial movie around her tames the anger and anguish of memory in favour of a well-meaning but pat, feelgood ‘prestige’ product.