A tale of great art, great crimes, and great perseverance, "Woman in Gold" is itself rather less than great.
Under the stolid, unimaginative direction of Simon Curtis ("My Week With Marilyn"), the movie gets the job done, relating the true story of how in 2006 the aging Maria Altmann recovered five Gustav Klimt paintings (including the iconic image of the title) that belonged to her family and that were stolen during World War II by the Nazis. Helen Mirren, working well within her skill set, plays Altmann. Ryan Reynolds is adequate as E. Randol "Randy" Schoenberg, the young LA lawyer who took the one-time refugee's case to the US Supreme Court and the Austrian government. The production design is swank, the score impassioned. We should be riveted.
Instead, you may feel you've seen this movie before, and, in a sense, you have: "Woman in Gold" plays remarkably like 2013's "Philomena" with a change of cast and a different historical outrage. Mirren's Maria is persnickety but lovable, Reynolds's Randy is callow but ultimately a crusader; the two progress from sniping at each other to lasting friendship. There is a reluctant trip abroad (from America to Austria rather than from England to America). And there is the pleasure of an immense moral sin being confronted and, if not righted, at least exposed to the world.
The difference is that "Woman in Gold" is dutiful and surprisingly dull, rolling along pre-ordained tracks and the familiar cadences of screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell's dialogue and situations. We know that Randy will initially resist the old lady's pleas for help before becoming obsessed with the case over the objections of his law firm boss (Charles Dance) and pregnant wife (Katie Holmes, underserved). And we know that Mirren's Maria, while initially refusing to return to the country that stole her birthright and killed her parents, will eventually face down history's demons and her own.
We certainly know how the case will turn out, even if we didn't follow it in the news a decade or so ago. (Altmann, who died in 2011, has been the subject of two earlier documentaries.) "Woman in Gold" tracks the ebb and flow of her long-shot journey over a number of years, from the Austrian government's declining to return the paintings, to the 2004 US Supreme Court case that allowed her and
Schoenberg to sue the foreign government, to the climactic 2006 ruling by a panel of three Austrian judges. A few piquant character turns interrupt the flow: Daniel Bruhl ("Rush") as Hubertus Czernin, the Viennese investigative journalist who assisted the pair, Jonathan Pryce ("Brazil") as an unaccountably folksy Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Elizabeth McGovern ("Downton Abbey") as a tart-tongued US magistrate.
But Reynolds doesn't benefit from having his sarcastic edge honed off to play the buttoned-down Randy; would that he'd been allowed the glowering imperiousness of his character's grandfather, composer and fellow Austrian refugee Arnold Schoenberg. Mirren, for her part, brings tenacity and a welcome vulnerability to Maria, but the role has little of the individual quirks (let alone the writing) that made Judi Dench's Philomena feel like someone you'd never met before.
By far the strongest scenes in "Woman in Gold" take place in the past, during Maria's upper-class Viennese childhood and the later Nazi Anschluss into Austria. In the latter scenes, the character is played by Tatiana Maslany, a wide-eyed but tough-nosed young actress who recently carved out a name for herself in the BBC America series "Orphan Black." Sequences of Maria and her new husband, Eric (Max Irons), witnessing barbaric Nazi anti-Semitism and Austrian complicity before fleeing the country may be equally familiar but are put over with a dramatic urgency that eludes the rest of this earnest, unsurprising film.
Early on, though, we're treated to a scene of Klimt himself (German star Moritz Bleibtreu) fussing over the canvas of oil and gold-leaf that the world knows as "The Woman in Gold" but that is properly titled "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I." The painting's subject is the young Maria's aunt, played in flashbacks by Antje Traue as a regal, tragic Art Nouveau beauty. Mirren's Maria is haunted throughout her life by this woman — a golden icon of a vanished era — and the movie is haunted by her as well.
Adele gets the first moments of "Woman in Gold" and the last; you may find yourself wishing she'd had everything in between.