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Woman in Gold' doesn't quite glitter

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Film can't live up to fascinating real-life inspiration

Making films about real events is a tricky proposition. Stick too closely to the story and you might wind up with a movie that lacks dramatic tension. Deviate too much and you'll need to brace yourself from the onslaught of suddenly-expert armchair historians. It's a delicate balance.

'Woman in Gold' is an interesting entry into the 'based on a true story' field. The Simon Curtis-helmed film is indeed based on actual events; however, the screenplay wasn't adapted from a memoir or biography or anything like that. Instead, screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell built her script on the life stories of the two main players. Seriously the credits actually read 'based on the life story of.' That might be the first time I've seen a film credited that way.

It's definitely a movie that feels true, so the balance is well struck, but in the end, 'Woman in Gold' falls a bit short of doing full justice to an absolutely fascinating tale.

Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren, 'The Hundred-Foot Journey') came to America from her native Vienna just as the Nazis were seizing power and enforcing their wills upon the Jewish population. But when her sister also in America passes away, she finds letters that force her to confront some still-painful memories from that time.

According to these letters, Maria might be the lawful owner of the famed Gustav Klimt painting 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I' a portrait of Maria's aunt that is better known as simply 'The Woman in Gold.' The painting has become a national treasure, but the Austrian government has also begun a program to offer restitution to those who lost valuable artworks to the Nazi occupiers.

Maria enlists the aid of a friend's son, a lawyer named Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, 'The Captive') whose family also has ties to Vienna. Randy agrees to help; he's reluctant at first, but he soon becomes Maria's champion, arguing her case in courtrooms and offices large and small on both sides of the Atlantic.

But the Austrian government has its own thoughts regarding the rightful place of the painting they call 'the Mona Lisa of Austria,' throwing obstacle after obstacle in front of Maria and Randy in hopes of wearing them down and winning a war of attrition. But the intrepid duo refuses to give up, doing anything and everything in hopes of finally righting this long-ago wrong.

And throughout, we are offered glimpses of Maria's past, flashbacks to a time both brighter and darker. We watch as a young Maria (Tatiana Maslany, TV's 'Orphan Black') and her family deal with the reality of being Jewish and living in WWII-era Europe; we also see the circumstances that culminate in her eventual escape.

'Woman in Gold' is definitely elevated by the presence of Helen Mirren. Even as she approaches 70 years old, she remains a singular talent. She endows Maria with a gravitas that never feels grave, a sense of depth that carries through even her lighter moments. She manages to be sweet and no-nonsense at the same time; someone who has come to terms with her half-century of sadness. As always, she is mesmerizing. And then there's Ryan Reynolds. As a longtime Reynolds hater, it pains me to say this, but he's actually quite good here. It seems that someone may have finally taught him to rein in his heretofore overpowering smugness; he gives a nuanced and subtle performance. Perhaps the highest compliment I can give is that at no point did I find myself rooting for someone to punch him in the face. I know I'm as surprised as you are.

There are some nice performances out of the supporting cast as well Maslany is quite good, as is Katie Holmes ('The Giver') as Randy's wife. Daniel Bruhl ('A Most Wanted Man') is also a key player as an Austrian journalist looking to help Maria and Randy navigate the bureaucracy.

However, the film suffers from some pacing issues that rob it of some of its effectiveness. The general sense is of more ebb than flow; there's just a little too much waiting around that goes on in the film. The truth is that the story is already dynamite one would think that if the filmmakers could just have gotten out of the way, the narrative could have carried the day. Alas, it just falls a bit flat.

Still, 'Woman in Gold' is a solid film, due mostly to the compelling nature of the real-life narrative and quality performances, some expected and others surprising.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 14 April 2015 22:26

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