Woman in Gold (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Woman in Gold (2015)

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Maria Altmann, after thinking she has said goodbye forever to the family who fled Austria at the dawn of World War II, discovers a parcel of notes which may return paintings back to her.  But the Austrian government is unwilling to admit their complicity in the Nazi occupation and subsequent theft of her legacy.  Maria, with the legal advice of young lawyer Randol Schoenberg, seeks to right this wrong.  Simon Curtis directs from a screenplay written by Alexi Kaye Campbell and stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

There's the woman in questionDealing with biographical films is a tricky prospect. They might not have great cinematic appeal if the real events the film is based on features a load of conversation or doesn’t have any intriguing characters. The inverse of this is to realize that biographical films, much like the way memories collect in our minds, are only as “real” as the way they are told. Like a crazy uncle who embellishes the story of a fish he caught, the emotional reality of the story told in broader details might make it more compelling than the same uncle giving precise fish measurements.

Woman in Gold already has a larger than life back story without any embellishment as Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) became the little ol’ woman who could in taking on the Austrian government. It’s hard to imagine a more suitable partner for this story than Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), who has his own rags to respect story intertwined with Maria’s growing lawsuit. But instead of allowing those emotions to come out in evocative dialogue or engaging cinematography, they are instead spelled out in what is quite possibly one of the worst screenplays I’ve seen made into a movie.

Helen Mirren's performance and cinematography create wonderful alchemy at many points of Woman in Gold.

Helen Mirren's performance and Ross Emery's cinematography create wonderful alchemy at many points of Woman in Gold.

It comes as little surprise that the screenplay for Woman in Gold was written by experienced playwright, and first-time screenwriter, Alexi Kaye Campbell. Many of the lines which caused me to cringe sound like they would play great with a receptive audience and broader emotions. But the forced intimacy of cinema creates a trickier scenario for writers, so when a key character says, “I have been trying to make up for the sins of the father,” there isn’t enough understatement in the world to soften the thudding obviousness of the prose. Similar broad jokes land badly, such as a clerk who wants to go to Austria because his daughter loves kangaroos, or when Randol says he’s starting to like Maria in spite of his better judgment.

Campbell shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for spelling out the themes of Woman in Gold so overtly when they made it into director Simon Curtis’ film to begin with. There are some odd pacing issues, especially since Woman in Gold delights in mingling the past and present together but statements such as, “half of Vienna showed up for my wedding,” aren’t visualized until some minutes later. A mid-film chase scene taking place in the past is similarly rough because the tension is dulled (we know Maria will get away because she’s alive in the present) and the repeating sequence of close calls grows boring quickly.

In spite of these issues, I still liked Woman in Gold, and the positives to Curtis’ direction is where the quality balance starts to tilt in his favor. Working with cinematographer Ross Emery, he takes full advantage of the Austrian landscape and the seemingly insurmountable odds Maria and Randol face. I loved the Supreme Court sequences toward the end as Randol slowly gains in stature against the broad white walls as he becomes nearly an equal to the other lawyers and Chief Justice William Rehnquist (Jonathan Pryce). There’s also an excellent visual motif to the otherwise boring chase scenes as the Nazis grow closer and the film takes on a German Expressionist feel as the hallways become endless and the stairs cutting in and out of the exaggerated angles of the frame.

But what really makes Woman in Gold soar is the central performance by Mirren. I’ve been a longtime admirer of her but she was so warm and affecting in her curt but hopeful manner that I practically blushed at some of her gestures. She does this wonderful little bob of her hair when Maria meets Randol for the first time as she’s flattered by the young man but still proud of herself. There’s a remarkable moment late in the film where she lets the reserve of strength she built for herself fall suddenly and we see how painful it is for Maria to revisit her family’s persecution.

Ryan Reynolds doesn't do insecure well, but his transition to tentative confidence makes for a great performance.

Ryan Reynolds doesn't do insecure well, but his transition to tentative confidence makes for a great performance.

The big surprise of Woman in Gold is how Reynolds’ performance sneakily rises to the same level of Mirren’s. His best work (Buried, The Voices) always seems like it will be broad until he works in darker tics. Something similar takes place in Woman in Gold, where it seems he’s badly cast as an insecure lawyer of Austrian descent, but then he works in stronger jabs and becomes more assertive in his partnership with Maria. Then there’s another emotional breakthrough which could have been treading the same path as Maria’s, but Reynolds brings a desperate air to his bathroom breakdown after visiting a Holocaust memorial and he realizes the heritage he’s carrying into the future.

With the occasional solid direction and consistently great cinematography and the relationship between Maria and Randol, I was moved from exasperation to deep joy at the closing scenes. This makes Woman in Gold something of an odd bird – not greater than the sum of its parts, nor lesser than its worst, but affecting all the same. In the end I’ll take joy over any disappointment, a lesson Maria passed on to us all.

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Tail - Woman in GoldWoman in Gold (2015)

Directed by Simon Curtis.
Screenplay written by Alexi Kaye Campbell.
Stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

Posted by Andrew

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