"That's quite a painting," someone says in "Woman in Gold" on first glimpsing Gustav Klimt's celebrated "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," and anyone seeing the artwork in person during its brief visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or at its current home at New York's Neue Galerie would have to agree.
The saga of how this dazzling work, sometimes known as "the Mona Lisa of Austria," came to leave the walls of Vienna's august Belvedere Gallery to take up permanent residence in the United States is quite a story as well.
And, as the fact that three documentaries touch on its narrative makes clear, any tale involving art history, Nazi thievery, conflicting wills and complex international legal wrangles is certainly worthy of cinematic treatment.
With all these good things going for it, it's regrettable that "Woman in Gold" is no more than adequate, more old-fashioned Hollywoodization than incisive modern dramatization. But the film does have an asset that can't be ignored, and that's Helen Mirren's tip-top performance as the film's costar. It's not enough to save the picture, but it certainly makes a difference.
Mirren stars as Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, an imperious Los Angeles matron we first meet in 1998, burying her only sister in a local cemetery. After the service, Maria reconnects with an old friend and fellow Austrian, émigré Barbara Schoenberg (Frances Fisher), the daughter-in-law of the great composer Arnold Schoenberg.
It turns out that Maria is in need of a lawyer she can trust, and Barbara's son Randol, a.k.a. Randy, the composer's grandson, is a struggling local lawyer in desperate need of a significant case. It sounds like a match made in heaven except that for quite some time it's anything but.
One of the things that makes this a story of interest is that, even though its ending was a glorious one, not only was its outcome uncertain for years but also its two main participants were not always eager to collaborate.
For one thing, Maria, interested in the return of five Klimt paintings, including the "Adele" portrait, that the Nazis seized from her family, is looking for an expert in art restitution, an area Randy (a game but overmatched Ryan Reynolds) knows nothing about.
Randy, for his part, is just starting a new job (Charles Dance is his no-nonsense boss) and a family (Katie Holmes is the standard-issue, mostly understanding wife), and has no time for a wild goose chase, especially in the company of a woman whose manner he clearly finds off-putting.
Audiences, however, will likely feel otherwise about Maria Altmann. Though this kind of bossy performance can be viewed as falling off a log for Mirren, the actress expertly creates Maria's Mittel-European hauteur and leavens it with enough humanity to give the film an integrity it definitely needs.
Not that director Simon Curtis and screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell don't try hard (maybe too hard) for significance and heft. There are several German-language flashbacks to the family's time in Vienna, most effectively to the days when Maria was a child (Tatiana Maslany) and the favorite niece of her aunt Adele (Antje Traue.)
Once the Nazis come to power in Austria, however, the scenes of storm-trooper depredation can't avoid a standard-issue feeling and remind us that Curtis' earlier "My Week With Marilyn" felt similarly pro forma despite another strong lead performance, in this case from Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams.
Back in the present, Randy finally gets interested in the case, initially because he spies a potential payday. Despite the general feeling that paintings that get to be refrigerator magnets do not often leave their home countries, he persuades Maria to come back to Vienna with him and pursue the case.
Things get increasingly complex legally from here on in, with everything from an appearance by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (Jonathan Pryce) to discussions of the relevance of the little-known Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act figuring in the mix.
Even without including speculation about a possible Klimt/Adele relationship or acknowledging the controversy around how Adele and family eventually disposed of the paintings, there is enough incident here to support a film. You just wish "Woman in Gold" was a better one.
'Woman in Gold'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief, strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In limited release