When a film has the words “based on a true story” attached to them it sometimes fills me with dread. Instead of being an interesting tale of real life adversity it can occasionally end up being a boring and not all that accurate story. Woman in Gold is-unsurprisingly-based on a true story, but is it one that deserved to be told?
In the 1990s Maria Ultman (Helen Mirren) an elderly Jewish refugee from Austria asks Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer son of a family friend to help reclaim a painting of her aunt stolen by the Nazis. However this process proves difficult as the painting in question is the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I -the Woman in Gold- by the artist Gustav Klimt, which is currently being held by the Austrian State Gallery. To get the painting back Maria and Randol face a long and obstructive court battle which may prove costly and fruitless.
I was worried this would be a ‘worthy’ and dull true life story, but from the beginning I was completely enthralled with the Woman in Gold. It helps that the true story around it is fascinating and has been brought to life admirably by director Simon Vurtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell.This is a movie about justice and accountability. How the Jewish citizens in Austria not only had their lives destroyed by the Nazis but their treasured possessions-their music, their paintings- taken away too and still kept from them after the war was long over.
The lead actors both give strong performances. Mirren’s Maria is determined yet haunted by the past, while Reynold’s convinces as the young lawyer who becomes more and more emotionally invested in the case as it progresses. Mirren and Reynolds initially seem like an odd pairing but they work great against each other and you really felt the growing friendship and respect between their characters.
While I expected to learn more about the ‘woman in gold’ herself the focus instead is on a younger Maria (the excellent Tatiana Maslany from TV’s Orphan Black) and her family after Adele’s death, told in flashback during the Nazi invasion of Austria. These flashback add insight and the reasoning of why Maria wants to fight for the painting so much and the scenes with Maria’s family trying to survive the Nazi occupation is fraught with tension.
Some may not find a court case about a painting riveting, and there are moments when the story falters such as whenever Maria has doubts over continuing with case, but I found this to be an engrossing and insightful movie that I hope finds an audience.
Rating 4/5 – a thoughtful film about justice with good performances from Mirren and Reynolds