Writers: Alexi Kaye Campbell, E. Randol Schoenberg (life story), Maria Altmann (life story)
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Daniel Bruhl, Katie Holmes, Tatiana Maslany
Running Time: 109 mins
The lowdown: Based on a true story, ‘National Treasure’ Helen Mirren fights for her rights against Third Reich crimes with a callow Ryan Reynolds in tow. Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) tries to create cinematic alchemy between his likeable leads but despite compelling subject matter and another puissant performance from the indomitable Dame, the effect is ultimately lacklustre.
The verdict: Although not the first time Nazi pilfering of priceless paintings has received the Tinseltown treatment, unlike 2013’s misjudged comedy caper Monuments Men, this deals, not with the recovery of stolen art but its restitution.
Gustav Klimt’s shimmering masterpiece, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ (better known as ‘The Lady in Gold’) is instantly recognisable; adorning the walls of art students the world over.
Seized by the Nazis during Austria’s annexation, the painting hung in the Belvedere Gallery, Vienna until the late 1990s when Maria Altmann, an elderly Jewish refugee and Bloch-Bauer’s niece, challenged the gallery for ownership rights.
Nicknamed ‘Austria’s Mona Lisa, it’s no wonder the gallery was reluctant to hand it over.
Altmann is often described as a frail octogenarian but we’re more used to seeing Mirren as a headstrong provocateur. Primping her hair before dishing out another pithy put-down (in an Afpelstrudel-thick accent) she doesn’t disappoint.
So much so, a bespectacled Reynolds (replacing original choice Andrew Garfield), as Altmann’s inexperienced lawyer Randol Shoenberg, is in danger of becoming little more than her comic foil.
Fans of Stephen Frears’ superior Philomena may draw unfavourable comparisons with the cross-generational comedy on display in the film’s first half.
In focussing on the determined duo, key supporting characters are hastily sketched. Daniel Bruhl’s sympathetic reporter is lumbered with too many exposition updates and Katie Holmes’ thankless role as Schoenberg’s supportive wife Pam sees her calmly picking out trial-worthy ties as her water breaks.
More successful are the interspersed flashbacks of Maria as a young woman (played with impressive conviction by Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany).
Maria’s farewell to her family before escaping overseas is thrilling and heartbreaking. The scenes help to highlight the picture as not just a priceless artwork but a personal connection to the family she was forced to leave behind.
These reminiscences prove a powerful depiction of Austria’s outward embrace of the Third Reich and the Jewish persecution that followed. Curtis ill-advisedly portrays Maria’s ‘present day’ Austrian opposition as unscrupulous villains, drawing uncomfortable and unwarranted parallels with the past.
Amid the bathetic grandstanding, important points are made regarding the correlation between art and cultural identity. Unfortunately, Curtis focuses so much on justifying one woman’s crusade; he fails to examine the bigger picture.