Woman in Gold: Helen Mirren Star Vehicle is a Misfire

Oscar-winner Helen Mirren is a classy actress who tends to elevate every picture she is, no matter the genre, theme, or specific role she is assigned to.

But alas, Woman in Gold, in which she plays a Jewish refugee living in America who returns to her native Austria to fight for ownership to Gustav Klimt’s famous painting depicting her aunt, is a misfire on any number of levels.

World premiering at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival to mixed-to-negative response, Woman in Gold likely will be dimissmed by discerning American critics as a simplistic courtroom melodrama, which reduces the extraordinary story (and quality) of a Gustav Klimt painting to an ordinary, only sporadically engaging film.

Based on true events, on one level, Woman in Gold is barely a decent TV-Movie-of-the-Week in its predictable narrative structure and middlebrow sensibility–there is no subtlety or ambiguity in the writing or direction.

On another level, the movie aims to be a glossy feature, based on its polished production values and all-star cast, including Mirren, Ryan Reynolds and Katie Holmes.

A much more involving film could have been made out of this stirring material about a woman, Maria Altman, who seeks justice in her relentless goal to retrieve and personal and valuable painting that was stolen by the Nazis and is now hanging in a national gallery.

The tale begins with a brief scene of painter Klimt, played by the German actor Moritz Bleibtreu, as he puts final touches on his 1907 “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” which is acknowledged as a master work. Confiscated by the Nazis from the Bloch-Bauer mansion in Vienna, this painting is installed in Austria’s Belvedere Gallery after the War.

Adele’s niece, Maria, a passionate and persistent femme, waited until old age to retrieve the inherited art work, arguing that legally it belongs to her.

In a change of pace, Ryan Reynolds is cast as art-restitution attorney Randy Schoenberg (yes, he is the grandson of genius composer Arnold Schoenberg).  First encouraged, then half-strong-armed by Maria into pressing her suit, this family friend accompanied her back to her homeland, where documents were discovered proving her right to be considered the painting’s legal owner.

The text is sharply uneven, and Curtis’s effort to infuse some humor into the proceedings is largely unsuccessful, trivializing rather than enhancing the central “Odd Couple.”

Furthermore, the flashbacks to WWII occupied Austria, while engaging in their own right, are inserted in such way as to divert attention from the dramatic locus of the story.

The movie is obviously modeled on Stephen Frears’s fact-based Philomena, which was Oscar nominated and was also released by the Weinstein Company.  This is particularly the case of the “Odd Couple” alliance, between Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Frears’ film and now between Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

Unfortunately, there is no strong rapport between Reynolds’ earnest, browbeaten lawyer and Mirren’s bright, wise-cracking, and slightly manipulative Maria.

On paper, Woman in Gold raises several interesting questions, but they are watered down in a misguided effort to reach broader viewers.