Movies

She was framed

'Woman in Gold' arbitrates the ownership of a classic Klimt

A Nazi-enabled "finders keepers" claim comes under scrutiny in the based-on-a-true-story drama, "Woman in Gold." In 1998, Gustav Klimt's shimmering 1907 oil, silver and gold portrait, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," is the pride of Vienna's Belvedere Gallery. But for one Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), a Jewish refugee and longtime resident of Los Angeles, the woman in gold is Aunt Adele and the painting a stolen family heirloom, albeit one valued at over $100 million.

Enter burgeoning attorney Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), whose mother (Frances Fisher) enlists him to hear out her friend Maria and advise her about a possible art restitution case against the politically savvy but firmly entrenched Austrian government. The skeptical Randy -- as Maria flirtily takes to calling him -- initially finds his head turned by the potential payday. On this thorny subject, the screenplay is careful to establish Maria's in it for the justice, and eventually, the case becomes a personal crusade for Randy that touches something deep in his Jewish roots.

Those roots include being the grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg (and you better believe a tear or two will be shed listening to his music before the final fadeout). The inherently fascinating tale of the painting's path out of the upper-crust Bloch-Bauer family's possession through Nazi hands and into the tourist-draw gallery -- only to have its next resting place contested in the U.S. Supreme Court -- not only brushes the famous composer and Chief Justice William Rehnquist (Jonathan Pryce), but also the Führer himself and Estée Lauder's son, gallery owner Ronald Lauder.

"Woman in Gold" primarily concerns itself with the turn-of-the-millennium legal battle (abetted by Austrian investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin, played by "Rush"'s Daniel Brühl) and the odd-couple bonding of persnickety Maria and relatively callow Randy. Yet a significant portion of the film takes place in Nazi-controlled Vienna just before the outbreak of WWII. There, we glimpse the painting's creation and track the dangerous days for the Blochs that precede a narrow escape for young Maria (the brilliant Tatiana Maslany of "Orphan Black"). As for Mirren and Reynolds, she handily turns Maria into a "character" and he effectively tamps down his tics, the two playing off of each other most effectively in the dry comic-relief beats.

The approach of screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell and director Simon Curtis ("My Week with Marilyn") can be corny, commercial, predictably platitudinous and tear-jerkingly weepy. But if Curtis and company lay it on a bit thick, it's also an inevitably thought-provoking dramatization of facing the "ghosts" of the past on an individual level and a national one. As one character muses, "The past is asking something of the present," that something being the familiar refrain, "Never forget."

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief strong language. One hour, 49 minutes.

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