Biopics can be a hit or miss situation. Either they have a ton of quality, filled with an incredible cast, or they are given the cheesy, effortless treatment with tons of false facts and awful make up (looking at you, Man in the Mirror). But then there are the interesting cases where the film can be a bit of both, one of which is the latest Weinstein Company release, Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.
Based on true events, Woman in Gold tells the story of Maria Altmann (Mirren), a Holocaust survivor, now living in Los Angeles. Her family, like many others during the war, were the victims of the Nazis stealing their prized positions, including (in Maria’s case) tons of important art pieces. When Maria discovers the will of her late aunt, she decides to enlist the assistance of Randol Schoenberg (Reynolds) to see if they can recover one of those stolen items, the famous painting “Woman in Gold,” for which Maria’s aunt sat as the subject.
It’s hard to not notice from the get-go the visual attention to detail within this film. Everything, from the way a piece of jewelry is shown, to a dinner plate being placed on the table, is stunning. Particularly the flashback scenes with Maria’s aunt are beautifully realized by cinematographer Ross Emery, making the famous painting come to life in a way that is simple yet delicious.
The same can be said for the performances of the film’s main cast. Helen Mirren is a gem, plain and simple. She perfectly executes Maria’s character by making her charming but irritating at the same time. You root for her at every turn, and yet want to shake her when she backs down on the fight. She’s believable and not a cartoon, which the character easily could have become if given to any other actress. But, as we’ve come to know, Mirren (like Meryl Streep) can basically do no wrong, which is no surprise.
Yet, the one that turned out to be the biggest surprise was Ryan Reynolds. Though known for his more accessible, “popcorn flick” roles, Reynolds shows a sense of control and maturity in this role, conveying a bit of the “Frank Capra charm” that actors like Jimmy Stewart were famous for showing. He’s the little guy, the David, going up against the big guy, the Goliath, and that element comes across wonderfully in every corner of Ryan’s performance.
But the real powerhouse aspect of the film is the duo of Mirren and Reynolds together. They have fantastic chemistry, along with electric comedic (and dramatic) timing, channeling timeless tag teams from films like Rain Man or Driving Miss Daisy. It’s the kind of combination that with any other two performers, the material would have fallen into the hottest of messes, but with these two, it just works.
Something to mention, which few have yet to touch upon, is the “Hollywood Squares” style casting that this film features. If you have ever wanted to see Katie Holmes play a bland, pointless wife role, it’s here. If you had always dreamed of seeing Charles Dance portray a super angry boss, here you go. And if you, dear reader, ever wanted to see Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern play a sassy judge, then your wish has been granted. Heck, even Jonathan Pryce (Brazil) plays a Chief Justice part for 5 minutes. It’s as if someone took a bag with random actor names and filled in whomever they chose in a Mad Libs version of the script. Genius? In some ways, I believe it is.
As mentioned before, this movie deals with flashbacks taking place during the time of the Holocaust. Though some of the scenes are handled in a bit of a Vogue, glamour-filled rendition of the time, there is some creativity involved and that (especially in a bio-pic) is refreshing. Particularly in scenes where Mirren sees her older self next to her much younger, now departed family members, was a beautiful “Disney-esque” sight to behold. Is it as realistic as other films on the subject? No, but it definitely works as an introduction to a younger audience about the struggles of that awful time in history.
Though this could have turned into a stereotypical Lifetime movie of the month feature, with excellent performances and direction by Simon Curtis, Woman in Gold accomplishes its task in a perfectly suitable fashion. It might not be a flawless classic, nor Schindler’s List, but it definitely has the makings of being the kind of movie that my mom would put on while she’s cleaning the dishes, and since that includes movies such as Joy Luck Club and Boyz N The Hood, I would say that is a pretty good compliment.