The story of Gustav Klimt’s painting The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (confiscated by Nazis, displayed as Austria’s Mona Lisa in a Vienna museum, test case in the law granting reparations to Jewish descendants) has already been detailed in articles, a book, and several documentaries. What Woman in Gold has over nonfiction portrayals is emotion, and director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) milks every scene for its heart-tugging potential.
Alexi Kaye Campbell’s script makes it easy for Curtis: The relationship between Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), whose aunt is depicted in Klimt’s famous golden portrait, and attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) is constructed as a platonic romance. From their awkward first meeting through trials that test their union to a life-altering conclusion, the legal case is always recounted through the filter of their relationship.
Mirren and Reynolds have great chemistry, and their odd couple — she’s regal and sharp-witted, he’s rumpled and steely-eyed — banter with easy humor and deep affection. Curtis also flashes back to a lost Vienna where the wealthy Bloch-Bauers were major art patrons (and friends of Randol’s grandfather, composer Arnold Schoenberg), scenes enlivened by Tatiana Maslany.
Mirren’s Maria is a careful construction, but Maslany’s Maria is intense and quick-witted, saying goodbye to her parents with profound tenderness and fleeing Nazis with heart-pounding determination. Woman in Gold suffers from biopic oversights (Maria’s children aren’t mentioned, nor is her husband’s brief internment at Dachau), but Curtis’s greatest oversimplification is viewing this fraught process as primarily a form of family reunification.