In Woman in Gold, Helen Mirren recovers a famous family painting stolen by the Nazis

The painting now known as “Woman in Gold” by the early 20th century artist Gustav Klimt is famous, but not the woman whose portrait it is. This was a family portrait, hung in the home of an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Vienna whose world imploded when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Very soon after, many Jewish residents were deported to death camps, leaving the Nazis free to steal their belongings. Much of this plunder found its way into Austrian museums during and after the war, including this painting.

Taking its name from the painting, a new movie tells how Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren in a glowing performance), the niece of the “Woman in Gold,” recovered the painting from the Austrian government more than 50 years after World War II.

(L-R) Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, and Daniel Bruhl star in Woman In Gold. Photo The Weinstein Company

(L-R) Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren, and Daniel Bruhl star in Woman In Gold. Photo The Weinstein Company

Woman in Gold is told from three angles. One part is a period piece, depicting Maria’s family life in pre-war Vienna, and the nostalgia she feels for a world destroyed by the Nazis. The movie also is a heart-pounding thriller, showing Maria and her new husband escaping from Austria as deportations to the death camps begin.

And through the ups and downs of the now-elderly Maria’s quest to recover the portrait, beginning in the late 1990s, the movie also explores the modern struggle to come to terms with a painful past—for both Maria and her homeland. She had to leave her beloved parents behind in order to escape, and the nation of Austria has to deal with—or gloss over—the stark fact that many Austrians welcomed the Nazis.

Sharing the spotlight with Mirren, Ryan Reynolds (Green Lantern) plays Randol Schoenberg, the young lawyer who represents Maria in her legal actions against the Austrian government. Reynolds manages here to shed his superhero persona to demonstrate some true acting skills. Daniel Bruhl (Rush) also turns in a fine performance as Hubertus, the young Austrian journalist who tries to expiate his Nazi father’s sins by helping Maria find evidence for her case against the Austrian government. (Hubertus also exposed the Nazi past of Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Secretary General).

Director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) could easily have used documentary footage to show the Nazis’ triumphant entry into Vienna. Instead, Curtis used live actor for those scenes, using slightly muted colors to differentiate them from the modern scenes filmed in the same locations. This makes the flashback portions of the movie flow seamlessly. The lone aspect of the film that doesn’t quite ring true is the last five minutes (no spoilers), which is the only time this otherwise excellent movie descends into sentimentality.