It may seem churlish and disingenuous to describe Woman in Gold as ‘Philomena with a painting‘, but a comparison may not be without merit. There are striking similarities between this and Judi Dench and Steve Coogan’s search for a long lost son. Both are based on true stories. Coogan and Reynolds both play young professionals dragged into a search for truth they initially want no part of and both cases go back decades. Both films cast one of the great Dame’s of British film in strong female roles. Both involve our odd-couples travelling abroad to uncover the truth. Actually, it is unfair to describe Woman in Gold as Philomena with a painting: It’s arguably better.
Mirren is Maria Altmann an elderly Austrian refugee living in California. The death of her sister prompts her to take on the Austrian government as she attempts to win back some extremely valuable family paintings that were stolen by the Nazi’s and now hang in a prestigious Austrian art gallery. Reynolds is Randy Schoenberg, son of a friend and her inexperienced lawyer. The truth as to what actually happened and legally where the duo stand is uncovered early with help from Daniel Brühl’s investigative journalist. After that it’s a fight for acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a fight for justice.
It’s almost a waste of word space to talk about how good Helen Mirren is, it’s just come to be expected. She simply grabs the screen whenever she’s on it and refuses to let go, her sheer screen presence draws you in and demands attention.
Reynolds may be overshadowed but again shows he has ability and far more potential as a dramatic actor if only he’d pick his roles better. He and Mirren share an easy chemistry. Elsewhere Daniel Brühl is excellent once again in his small role and Orphan Black‘s Tatiana Maslany does stand-out work as the young Maria.
While there are undoubtedly similarities between Woman in Gold and Philomena there are key differences. Reynolds is warmer and more likeable than Coogan’s journalist; and Woman in Gold is less of an odd-couple road trip, more of a long-slog of a journey through various levels of court in different countries. Altmann is more regal and refined than Philomena’s everywoman and thus the relationship dynamic between the two leads is different: Altmann is picking Schoenberg up on manners and etiquette rather than mothering him.
Then there’s the flashbacks. Philomena had a few quick flashbacks, but kept the focus very much on her modern day search for her long lost son. Woman in Gold spends a lot of time in the thirties and forties, chronicling lives of the wealthy family comes from alongside the rise of Nazism in Austria. If at first you miss watching Helen Mirren effortlessly dominate the screen you soon come to care for her immediate family and as her and her husband (Irons) leave family and friends behind in a dramatic bid for freedom your heart is in your mouth.
It does utilise a more familiar, if not outright formulaic structure than Philomena which might make it easier or harder to engage with depending on mood. Occasionally you get the feeling that Mirren and Reynolds are making the script sharper than it is, finding a funny line or a deeper character moment where it wasn’t there to be found and some of the modern day courtroom scenes lack the drama they might; but do include a moving and heartfelt speech from Schoenberg. On rare occasion Woman in Gold takes a shortcut: a needless montage here, an insufficient explanation of a character’s motivations there; while Schoenberg’s wife seems to have been included simply to talk exposition about his personal life, but these concerns don’t stop Woman in Gold from being a gripping, affecting experience.