Woman in Gold review: Helen Mirren’s performance brightens up an otherwise clouded portrait

The star's "natural air of grace and dignity" saves this one-sided true story about a woman's fight to reclaim an art treasure seized by the Nazis, says Stella Papamichael

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★★★

Helen Mirren may as well be crowned with heavenly rays in this true-life drama that charts the epic legal wrangle between Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee to America, and the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, who both had a claim on the titular painting by Gustav Klimt. It’s a completely one-sided telling of the story, but Mirren is a treasure with a natural air of grace and dignity that helps her rise above what appears, at times, to be an unseemly business.

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There are echoes, too, of Philomena in Mirren’s partnership with Ryan Reynolds, playing the inexperienced legal eagle Randol Schoenberg – the son of a family friend – who is subjected to her curt, slightly crotchety disposition. Reynolds is more than usually restrained, though, eschewing the kind of quipping banter that might have livened up proceedings, but that may be due to director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) who takes a tentative approach overall.

Curtis is particularly careful when treading around the shadow of the Holocaust, with a young Maria (Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany) pictured in flashback trying to escape Austria as the Nazis march on the capital in 1938. These are some of the more dramatic scenes of the film, but the divide between wartime and her travails decades later feels a little too wide. Reminders about the genocide never sit very comfortably alongside the battle with red tape and the Belvedere’s bureaucrats, who took possession of the Klimt after a Nazi raid on Maria’s home in Vienna.

The subject of the portrait was not only Maria’s late aunt but also Klimt’s muse Adele Bloch-Bauer (Antje Traue), and a sticking point for the film is that she wrote a will bequeathing it to the Belvedere. That was before the Nazi invasion, however, but Altmann and Schoenberg dismiss her wishes too quickly and there isn’t an urgent or palpable sense of what compels Maria to pursue the case in 1999. She insists it isn’t about the money and frustratingly Curtis only illustrates the emotional pull of the artwork at the film’s climax rather than using it to fuel Maria through her years-long battle against the Austrian state.

In some ways it’s easier to get behind Schoenberg, who admits to having taken the job for a fat pay cheque but gradually develops a hunger for justice after visiting Vienna and feeling the tug of his family’s past. His efforts to reconcile hours spent on the case with the burden of trying to provide for his own young family (unpaid until the last) makes him even more sympathetic, where Maria sometimes seems remote and immovable – like another woman in gold. She does express misgivings about spending her twilight years in the courtroom (and in Vienna, where she is especially reluctant to go) but it’s Schoenberg who becomes the driving force. Mirren can stand still and glow.

Unfortunately, the Austrian side isn’t given a fair hearing, considering the time that has elapsed since the Nazis were in power and the assumption that the Belvedere’s curators are – more than trying to get one over on Maria – sincerely passionate about keeping the Klimt in the country where it was painted. In the end, there is a finale without a sense of resolution and that is the most powerful point to be made in a film that weighs art and its sentimental value against the immeasurable loss of human life and the people Maria that held dearest. Naturally, Mirren isn’t the type to beg sympathy, but she more than does justice to a woman who seems to have been very difficult to capture.

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Woman in Gold is in cinemas now