Pick a country you hate. Any really. Maybe you hate its leader. Its politics are backwards. Maybe its cuisine sucks or its flag looks like shit. Does one country spring instantly to mind? Is it Austria? Good. Because I have the perfect movie for you: Simon Curtis’s Woman In Gold. Self-righteous to a nauseating degree, BBC stalwart Curtis’s crowdpleasing search for justice shakes its finger at the entire country for its complicity in the rise of Nazism as it follows Jewish refugee Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) in her quest to reclaim artwork stolen from the Nazis and kept on display ever since in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna.
Sure, this true story has the makings of an intriguing legal investigation into war crimes and bureaucratic entanglement, but writer Alexi Kaye Campbell lays on the shame a little too thick in his by-the-numbers script, to the point that Altmann transforms from plucky justice seeker to score-settling bigot. Certainly there’s an audience that would cheer when she enters Austria and demands that every service professional speak to her in English as if Hitler invented the German language, and that’s a scary thought. This movie isn’t about closing old wounds more than it is about opening them up again.
From another point of view, it’s fascinating to observe this irreparably damaged woman demanding recompense from the unfortunate inheritors of the Nazi legacy, and the real shame is that the Nazis themselves aren’t the ones being prosecuted. Any number of Austrian officials are put in a bind by Altmann’s case, but they’re never portrayed as anything more than dismissive jerks, her biggest opponent always sporting a glint in his eye that suggests he knows he’s getting away with grand larceny. Maybe he does. We never know.
It’s easier to relate to Ryan Reynolds’s soft-spoken, strong-willed lawyer Randy Schoenberg, a family friend whom Altmann hires to look into the matter. Altmann, having experienced the Anschluss and persecution herself, lives with inchoate pain and anger, while Schoenberg has the wiles and eloquence to build a case, sway courts in his favor, and see things through to the end at great personal sacrifice. Sure, he uses money as his motivation earlier on before experiencing a mildly hokey epiphany, but without his resourcefulness the case would’ve gone nowhere. Schoenberg’s noblesse is the opposite side of the coin from Altmann’s deep-seated need for closure. It’s sunnier and easier to feel good about because he’s an agent on behalf of Altmann’s pain. He doesn’t embody Altmann’s bitterness, which no court decision could ever erase.
Curtis ends up making it too easy for his audience, tipping from feel-good into feel-justified territory with a lot of preaching to the choir-type moments about Nazi atrocities and government incompetence. Funny thing is, with an end result as satisfying as Altmann’s, her story doesn’t need the embellishment. When Daniel Bruhl’s Austrian investigative journalist reveals to Altmann and Schoenberg that he’s worked his whole life to atone for his father’s involvement with the Nazis, it’s a step too far, vilifying an entire country and generation with a simple moral stance that’s in much need of further investigation.