When “Woman in Gold,” opens, it’s on a presumably humorless setting: a funeral in which Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) is giving an eulogy for her sister, but only a few minutes in, she starts making jokes, which the attendees receive at first uncomfortably but then manage to chuckle at. This will set the tone for the entire movie, in which many characters, from Maria to the various judges, will indulge in humor, some of it gallows, and most of it there to give the audience a slight break from the gravitas of the subject: which is the based-on-real-life story of how a Jewish woman who lost most of her family in the Holocaust and was forced to emigrate to America, hired a young lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) to force the Austrian government to return a Klimt portrait of her aunt (hence the film’s title), which was stolen by Nazis (along with many other of her family’s possessions).
Helen plays an outspoken, fiercely independent woman in her eighties, who is given the name of Reynold’s lawyer by his mother. He’s just failed at attempting to open his own firm and is about to interview for a job which he gets, but not before the interviewers point out that not only he is the grandson of the composer Schoenberg and the son of a judge. (Luckily, the film does not attempt to whip up some drama in a stereotypical father-son conflict.) Despite an awkward first meeting (“This was a test, and we both failed,” Helen says at its conclusion), Ryan finds himself persuaded by Helen to do some research into her case. This leads to them going to Austria (in Helen’s case returning after having to flee for her life with her husband from the Nazis). Here they meet a Good Samaritan (Daniel Bruhl), who offers for reasons that will later be made specific, to help guide them through the bureaucratic maze that they must negotiate in order to successfully get the painting back. This is fortunate, as many of the officials they encounter are less than helpful, and a few are downright hostile at the thought of having a priceless work of art leave the country. Anti-Semitism, which Helen correctly predicts will greet them, is still lingering. In flashbacks, we get Maria’s backstory (her younger self is played by Tatiana Maslany), and how she overcame just about every obstacle you could think of in order to get out of Austria safely. (Unexpected transportation delays take on a whole new meaning when you have Nazis a few steps behind you.)
When they return, discouraged but not yet defeated, Ryan quits his job, even though his lovely, supportive wife (Katie Holmes) is expecting their second child soon, and decides to bring the case to the US – all the way to the Supreme Court. (After this, and “The Giver,” I hope Holmes doesn’t get too typecast.) It’s in those scenes that he began to impress me because usually when an actor performs in a courtroom drama, they can’t resist the temptation to start chewing scenery like a Hungry, Hungry Hippo – but Ryan doesn’t do that. He just plays an ordinary person who believes in what he’s doing, not someone keeping in the back of their mind that they may be acting in a future Oscar clip. As for Helen, she’s excellent, but then I was expecting that. The flashbacks, too, that show Maria interacting with her family, especially as what we know will be their deaths draws closer, are also moving, and cynic that I am, I couldn’t help but find the portrayal of them sticking together with dignity, pride and affection, heartwarming.