True Holocaust Story and Courtroom Drama Fall Flat in 'Woman in Gold'

Like many other melodramas about the Holocaust, the serious intentions of Simon Curtis' film are ruined by its reliance on formulas that are all too predictable.

Woman in Gold Directed by Simon Curtis; written by Alexi Kaye Campbell; with Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Tatiana Maslany, Katie Holmes, Charles Dance, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, Moritz Bleibtreu

Melodramas about the memory of the Holo-caust, usually based on a true story, are not the kind of movie toward which I tend to feel much sympathy or respect. Even when they are good – and they rarely are – and certainly when they are as flimsy as British director Simon Curtis’ “Woman in Gold,” such films have trouble confronting their own function as entertainment, and their earnest intentions are damaged by a frequent reliance on hackneyed formulas. In most cases, such movies flatten the past and its memory – and that is exactly what happens in “Woman in Gold.”

Curtis’ movie tells the story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), who fled from Austria to California during World War II. At the beginning of the 21st century, after her sister dies, Maria discovers documents indicating that the Nazis stole precious artworks belonging to her family. Among these were several paintings by Gustav Klimt, including his most famous work, “Woman in Gold,” a gold-leaf-encrusted portrait of Maria’s aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The painting, displayed at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, is Austria’s most famous art work, drawing millions of tourists every year. The Austrian government is therefore understandably surprised and resistant when Maria decides to sue for ownership of the painting. She does so with the help of Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), a rather inexperienced lawyer who also comes from a family of Holocaust survivors and is the grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Maria is all determination – a quality that does not allow Mirren to display much emotional range, but is enough in the context of the plot. Randy’s portrayal is more problematic. He joins Maria’s fight because it offers him an opportunity to advance his law career, but his family history and Maria’s story gradually transform this initial opportunism into a personal commitment. The change he undergoes is as formulaic as the movie itself; the fact that his transformation happens after a visit to Vienna’s Holocaust memorial, which causes him to collapse in tears in the bathroom, reeks of emotional manipulation, even if this was indeed what happened in real life. Randy’s limitations as a character are not helped by the film’s portrayal of his relationship with his wife, played by Katie Holmes in a truly thankless role.

Much of “Woman in Gold” is a courtroom drama packed with didactic, pathos-filled speeches. Courtroom dramas usually have an interesting dramatic and theatrical potential, but this one is entirely fumbled by Curtis. He is a director who worked mostly in British television before gaining acclaim for “My Week with Marilyn,” another real-life story, but one told with more sophistication. As a result, even the peak moments of “Woman in Gold” are predictable and tedious. Apparently Curtis thought that courtroom scenes would not keep his viewers sufficiently entertained, and he added flashbacks about Maria’s family in Vienna and what happened to the young Maria (played by Tatiana Maslany) during the war.

Memory erupts in full force as a result of Maria’s trip with Randy to Austria, where she swore she would never set foot again. Her encounters with Austrian officials, who are predictably hostile, also bring back recollections of the terrible past. “Woman in Gold” transitions between past and present in a clumsy way, and it is in the flashback scenes that its limitations become most apparent: These are memories of the Holocaust shaped according to every possible dramatic and emotional cliché. In Austria we meet another character, that of a local journalist (Daniel Bruhl), who is supposed to represent the younger generation’s grappling with the collective Austrian guilt. He too, however, is handled in a superficial, predictable way.

The memory of the Holo-caust will continue to provide a near-endless supply of stories, some of them told on the screen. But the very proliferation of such stories requires extra caution, which “Woman in Gold” lacks. As happened in many other movies, the force of the Holocaust’s memory clashes with the routine filmmaking methods used to depict this still-raw moment in our past. The result therefore does not just miss the opportunity to tell a good story by making it a humdrum drama; it offends that memory as well as the history it is supposed to preserve in our minds.