It’s pretty easy these days to tell if a film is a Weinstein Company film. Harvey Weinstein has a track record from his days at Miramax for a particular kind of film that can also be called “Oscar bait.” These are usually period pieces set in the first half of the 20th century, with a role juicy enough for an Oscar nomination and/or a prestigious Oscar nominee in a major role. As you might guess, the latest Weinstein Company film, Woman in Gold, fits all of these criteria.
The film tells the story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), who immigrated to the United States from her native Austria in World War II, as she struggles to regain paintings by Gustav Klimt from the Austrian government at the end of the 20th century. Among the paintings Altmann’s family owned was the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which later became known as the “Woman in Gold” during the Nazi occupation of Austria. Following the war, the Austrian government claimed that Adele Bloch-Bauer, Altmann’s aunt, left the paintings to the Austrian State Gallery in her will. Over four decades later, the political climate in Austria saw the government returning stolen works of art to their rightful owners, but not without a lengthy series of efforts to keep them.
The film opens with Altmann in 1998, as a longtime resident of Los Angeles, as she manages to recruit a young lawyer, Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), to help her figure out her legal options. Schoenberg, who has just joined a law firm after failing to make it on his own, initially resists, but he becomes intrigued by the financial value of the paintings in question. Soon, Altmann and Schoenberg are on their way to Vienna for a hearing over the ownership of the paintings in question. The modern-day storyline eventually leads to a series of court battles in Austria and the United States that, if it weren’t for the more than capable talent of Mirren, would be rather ho-hum.
What gives the film some resonance, beyond Mirren’s general talent, are the extensive flashback sequences. Led by Tatiana Maslany as the younger Maria, the sequences examine her life in Vienna, including her miraculous escape from Nazi-occupied Austria. Maslany is surrounded in these scenes by talented supporting actors, but it’s ultimately Maslany who makes the scenes a success. She’s able to convey Altmann’s happiness in pre-Nazi Austria, as well as the horror over her family’s fate afterward. Credit should also go to director Simon Curtis, who wisely chooses to keep these scenes in German instead of English.
There’s little in the way of dramatic tension in the modern-day storyline, which is both a shame and predictable. Still, it manages to work thanks to Mirren’s undeniable talent, which she channels into Altmann’s understandable resentment toward her homeland. Between Mirren and Maslany, they’re able to elevate what would otherwise be a fairly generic entry into the Weinstein Company catalog of period pieces.