Woman in Gold ★★½

They should have made a documentary instead.

"Woman in Gold" tells the fascinating true story of Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), who ended up suing the Austrian government in an effort to reclaim five paintings by Gustav Klimt that were stolen from her family by the Nazis. The real-life events that the movie is based on are more interesting than this fictionalized account of what happened. Unfortunately, the material doesn’t make for compelling viewing, at least not in the hands of director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell. And I write “unfortunately” because the story deserves to be brought to the attention of a wide audience.

The movie is a decidedly formulaic affair that plays it safe at all times, ticking all the boxes for a film of its kind. Even if one is completely unfamiliar with the court case in question, as I was, it’s not hard to guess the final outcome, and the journey to get there isn’t terribly engaging either.

The filmmakers do achieve a nice balance between the film’s present and events in its past, with the latter scenes being significantly more dramatically potent than the former by putting things in a historical context. By comparison, the court-drama aspect of "Woman in Gold" turns out to be rather dull. Another strength of the movie is that it educates the viewer a little about art history.

An emotional farewell shown in a flashback scene near the end of "Woman in Gold" loses much of its power when the characters suddenly switch to speaking English, to jarring effect. The explanation provided in the movie for the switch comes across as forced. It must also be noted that there are two laughably blatant instances of product placement that took me out of the film.

Cinematographer Ross Emery gives "Woman in Gold" a natural, textured look, but I noticed a distracting softness to parts of the picture not in focus (I’m certain it wasn’t an issue with the projector). The music, composed by Martin Phipps and Hans Zimmer, beautifully highlights feelings and emotions throughout the proceedings without being particularly memorable. Peter Lambert’s work in the editing room fails to establish a proper, consistent flow between certain scenes, although perhaps the episodic structure of the screenplay is more to blame for that.

What about the two lead actors, then? Helen Mirren is Helen Mirren, and she’s always a delight to watch. Here, however, her role doesn’t really demand that much of her. Ryan Reynolds gives a strong, committed performance as Randy Schoenberg, a relatively inexperienced lawyer who starts working the case for one reason and later becomes determined to win it for a completely different, personal reason.

As I wrote in the beginning of this review: they should have made a documentary instead. Or at least have found a more creatively inspired way to tell the story in this film.