A lot of things jump to mind when a film flashes “based on a true story” – either they’re attempting to tug at the heartstrings, or they’re trying to establish that the story is in fact worth $12.50 and two hours of your time.
Woman in Gold excels on both counts and even without the forewarning that recent, real-life events are its inspiration, many of which are faithfully depicted, the film delivers as a genuine, moving drama.
Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren with a consistently convincing Austrian accent), a Jewish refugee living in California who fled Europe at the time of the Nazi occupation, enlists the help of down-on-his-luck attorney Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) to retrieve her family’s paintings stolen by the Third Reich and now hanging in Austria’s famous Belvedere gallery. The “Woman in Gold,” a painting of her beloved aunt, is the prize of the gallery; together with the other paintings estimated to be worth over a hundred million dollars.
The pair are summarily dismissed by various authorities on their journey to Austria as Maria wanders through the city to which she promised she would never return, re-living aspects of her formative years. The film is an affectionate and harrowing look at the plight of Maria’s family and other citizens of 1930s Austria, recalling both the blissful life she once had and subsequent oppression and humiliation at the hands of the Nazis.
Woman in Gold does not shy away from the modern legacy of Austria’s past. As Maria and Randy are roundly disrespected and disregarded in her attempts to have her property returned to her, Maria encounters others who believe she, and her demands, have little place in modern Austria, feeling at times as helpless upon her return as she did decades ago.
Ultimately the film banks on the relationship between the two leads, with Maria developing a motherly affection for Randy who, in his own right, comes to terms with his family’s past; his own grandparents having suffered under the same circumstances. This is a human drama, not a legal drama in any sense. There’s no long late-night pouring over documents to find that longed-for precedent or drawn-out confrontation across a boardroom table over the technicalities of Austria’s restitution laws. The courtroom scenes are filled with non-technical, emotional pleas, while the scenes between Randy and Maria or Randy and his wife (Katie Holmes) are all about the feels.
A little melodramatic at times, this is nevertheless a competent family-friendly drama about two very different people with a common past, united in a moving and rewarding campaign, a true story that deserved to be told and was told well.