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Mirren’s unshakable portrait lifts ‘Woman in Gold’

By Michael Fox

The opening shots of “Woman in Gold” depict the preparation and application of gold leaf to a painting. The sequence evokes the title of the film, then goes on to introduce the famous Gustav Klimt portrait known familiarly as “Lady in Gold.”

What every viewer will discern, though it isn’t acknowledged until later, is the cost of Klimt’s materials, the affluence of his model and the value of the finished work. Money, you see, is the uncouth elephant in “Woman in Gold.”

In portraying the mostly true story of Maria Altmann’s years-long effort to reclaim the works of art stolen by the Nazis from her Austrian-Jewish family, British director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell would prefer that we focus on the justness of Altmann’s cause and the pull of family history and personal memory. However, the most interesting aspect of “Woman in Gold,” which opens April 3, is the unexplored tension between noble aspirations and fallible human nature.

For glossed-over reasons, Altmann (alternately played with stiff-backed vehemence and grandmotherly affection by Helen Mirren) decides late in life to take on the Austrian government over the five Klimt paintings that graced the family’s sprawling Vienna flat and now hang in the Belvedere Museum.

The longtime Southern California resident enlists a young lawyer named Randol Schoenberg (a clean-cut Ryan Reynolds), the unqualified son of an acquaintance, to consider her case. We are clumsily informed that his grandfather was the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, but that his heritage is not important to him.

Schoenberg has a new job and a young family, so Altmann’s request is a nuisance more than anything. Until he goes online, that is, and learns that “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” the painting generally known to as “Lady in Gold” and the most famous of the five Klimts, is valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.

It wouldn’t behoove this poignant underdog saga to be sullied by a Jewish preoccupation with money, so Schoenberg’s obsession with the case is henceforth portrayed as a journey whereby he is transformed from a callow youth to a skilled, confident attorney, and from an assimilated Angeleno to the proud claimant of his Austrian-Jewish heritage.

Likewise, Altmann pooh-poohs any interest in the proceeds of a possible sale. In fact, when Austrian officials broach the idea of a financial settlement, Altmann is insulted and infuriated.

Notwithstanding her wrenching return trips to Vienna with Schoenberg to look for documents in the Belvedere archive and meet with the dastardly Austrians, Altmann’s evolution takes place primarily in her mind. A great deal of “Woman in Gold” unfolds in flashbacks spanning Maria’s childhood, wedding and escape after the Anschluss in 1938 when Nazi persecution of Jews commenced.

Adele Bloch-Bauer was not an anonymous model of Klimt but Altmann’s beloved aunt. After she died in 1925, her portrait (which had been commissioned by her husband and completed back in 1907) served as a kind of companion to the adolescent Maria.

While the legal machinations and rulings in Altmann’s case provide the rooting interest, it is the family life in pre-war Vienna – and Maria’s survivor’s guilt – that gives the film its emotional punch. And viewers assuredly feel it, thanks to the paint-by-numbers screenplay.

“Woman in Gold,” notwithstanding its arthouse engagements, epitomizes mainstream movies that spoon-feed their audiences. There is scarcely a moment in the film where the viewer is in the slightest doubt what to think or feel, and barely a line of dialogue that doesn’t smack us on the nose with its obviousness.

The performances of Mirren, Tatiana Maslany (”Orphan Black”) as young Maria, and the moving Allan Corduner as Maria’s father elevate the film above its penchant for transparent manipulation. They are almost enough to recommend “Woman in Gold.”

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