(Image: telegraph.co.uk)

In a new subset of movie reviews on my main website, I am circling back to see and review reasonably recent films that I either missed during their main theatrical runs or saw later then their window of mainstream prominence.  As a guy with a traveling day job and a new father of "two-under-two," I can't see everything every week and I have to choose my spots to head out to the theater.  These are my educational-themed "OVERDUE REVIEWS" and the life lessons are still in full effect.


MY LATE HOMEWORK EXCUSE:  I actually wasn't too late in seeing "Woman in Gold."  I caught it in the theater about four weeks into its wider release, but I never took the time to review it until now.  In the box office world, four weeks is an eternity and old news, even for a steady word-of-mouth builder and modest success like this film which is still hanging around some art house venues still today in May.

ANTICIPATORY SET AND PRIOR KNOWLEDGE:  From director Simon Curtis ("My Week with Marilyn"), Academy Award winner Helen Mirren stars in this film based on the true story of the late Maria Altmann, a Jewish refugee from World War II who sought to reclaim one particular lost possession of her family's that was taken by the Nazis during their occupation of Vienna, Austria.  Matching the title of the film, that family heirloom in question is Gustav Klimt's famous and penultimate Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, nicknamed the "Woman in Gold," a national treasure of Austria as important as the Mona Lisa.  The woman in the painting is Maria's favorite aunt Adele (played by Antje Traue of "Man of Steel") and the picture was proudly hung in her family's lavish home until it was seized during the war.

At the time of the beginning of this quest in the 1990s, Maria has been living in Los Angeles since fleeing her home country and the painting has been a resident of the Austrian State Gallery.  She is reminded of the family painting while going through her late sister's belongings.  With a sense of pride to set things right, Maria seeks the legal counsel of young Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the son of a fellow Austrian family friend, and wonders if she has a case for restitution.  Randy mulls it over, but is out of his element when it comes to art restitution.  After realizing the immense monetary value of the painting, he gets his firm's backing to pursue the case even though this has never been about the money for Maria.  Through interwoven flashbacks to a young Maria's plight and the passage of time where Maria's case makes it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Maria and Randy become determined and invested in seeing this family wish realized. 

MY TAKE:  Without a doubt, "Woman in Gold" is all Helen Mirren's show.  Sure, it's nice to see Ryan Reynolds embrace a meaty role that is far outside of his resume and modus operandi, but Mirren rules all like the Oscar winner she is.  The only ensemble performer that can come close to carrying a scene legitimately in this film outside of Mirren is "Orphan Black" star Tatiana Maslany who plays the young Maria.  "Rush" star Daniel Bruhl and an out-of-left-field Katie Holmes are relegated far to the periphery playing a helpful investigative reporter and the obligatory worrying wife role respectively.

Frankly, this is all too easy and too simple for Helen Mirren and company.  Despite attempts at provoking family and ancestral themes, the drama is rarely substantial enough to stir the audience.  If you've seen one courtroom movie of waiting for decisions, you've seen them all and this one isn't all that compelling of a case, despite the fresh tracks laid in the fairly untraveled waters of art restitution.  It's a nice little history lesson, but nothing earth-shattering or must see.  Maybe Helen Mirren is so good that she softens all of the sharp edges, or maybe there wasn't anything too weighty to begin with.  This one is for die-hard Mirren fans only.

LESSON #1: THE IMMENSE CULTURAL LOSSES CAUSED BY THE NAZI REGIME DURING WORLD WAR II-- We've seen snippets of this stolen and forgotten history touched upon in such films as Oscar winners "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist" and lesser films like "The Monuments Men."  To date, "Woman in Gold" is the most immersive single story on this subject yet.  In the Nazi efforts to eradicate the Jewish population in Europe, a great deal of their culture was nearly erased as well.  Between homes being seized, creations being destroyed or stolen, and unfulfilled artists and talented people of all kinds being killed, that creative and cultural loss is still being measured to this day.

LESSON #2: THE LEGAL IN'S AND OUT'S OF ART RESTITUTION-- Similar to Lesson #1, "Woman in Gold" covers this little-seen legal arena more than any other film to date.  Randy's challenges and upward steps to grant Maria's case the fair judgment it deserves highlight much of what art restitution is really about in the various levels of court, media attention, loopholes, history, and research he and Maria have to trek through.  In the same way that WebMD makes us all think we are amateur expert doctors, we can also say courtroom movies pretend to make us legal experts after a good case.  Let your "hey, man, I saw this in a movie" reference knowledge grow.

LESSON #3: WHAT PARTS OF YOUR PAST YOU LET GO AND WHAT PARTS YOU DON'T-- Evolving past the history and legal lessons of #1 and #2, we get to the familial heart at the center of Maria Altmann and her story.  Ever since she left Vienna all those years ago, she vowed never to go back to Austria.  She felt fully adopted as an American, yet still proud of family history.  She was a woman of two worlds: her present one and the lost one from her original home.  This case and this journey forced her to return to her homeland and face her past.  The film's flashbacks reveal to us the deep family bond that was shattered by the loss of war.  Seeing Maria's courage to let go of some parts of her past and embolden others, even Randy, himself the Americanized grandson of famous composer Arnold Schoenberg, gains a nostalgia and an appreciation of what it took for him to be in the place he is too.