In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates, the father of the medicinal arts, laid out the code by which all physicians practice their art. Perhaps the greatest tenant therein: Do no harm. Do your job as well as you can, but above all else, make sure that no person walks out of your office in worse shape than when he or she arrived.
With that simple thought in mind, “Woman in Gold” accomplishes the basics: the film is not a world-beater, and there are not going to be many Oscar nominations in its future, but it manages to be inoffensive and enjoyable. It could have been more, but you did not waste your $10.
“Woman in Gold” is the true story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a Jewish woman who fled Austria in the beginning days of World War II, and her efforts to reclaim art that had been stolen from her family by the Nazis during Austrian occupation. One of the paintings, of course, is the titular “Woman in Gold” — the name temporarily given to Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” which was commissioned by Altmann’s uncle and had spent 30 years in the family home.
Altmann enlists the help of Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the lawyer son of a family friend, and the pair take on the entire Austrian government in a battle over a painting that Altmann sees as her family legacy, but which the Austrian government views as their Mona Lisa.
The real-life story of how Altmann petitioned, sued and ultimately took the Austrian government to binding arbitration over ownership of the paintings is a fascinating and complex tale that features deft legal wrangling and intense national pride. It also forces one to take a nuanced look at things like racism, nationalism and the basic concept of ownership.
Consider for a moment just this one scenario: You are the Austrian government. You have a work of art that is one of the greatest examples of your national artistic heritage in existence, and it has been in your possession since 1938. Now a relative of the original owner wants the painting back. Even though you feel like you have a legitimate claim to the painting through a Last Will and Testament, defending your position still requires you to awkwardly sidestep the fact that you originally acquired the painting thanks to Nazis.
“Woman in Gold” looks at virtually none of those issues and instead opts to cover the story in the broadest strokes possible. In carrying out this plan, the film takes parties from both sides of the case and turns them into caricatures. The delegates from the Austrian government and State Gallery are turned into sneering villains looking to cheat an old lady out of her rightful property, while Altmann becomes a completely altruistic David, fighting against the mean Austrian Goliath to be reunited with a portrait of her aunt. Any information that might possibly conflict with those viewpoints is dealt with in a written epilogue at the end of the film, leaving the bulk of the film unencumbered with anything that might provide any kind of nuance to a genuinely fascinating true story.
The acting in “Woman in Gold” is uniformly the best part of the film. Mirren does a wonderful job with a hamstrung character, while Reynolds and Daniel Bruhl (as Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin) both provide excellent support to Mirren’s work. At the end of the day, “Woman in Gold” is a typical, heartwarming “good guys over bad guys” story. It does no harm. But it could have done so much more. CV