Saturday, April 4, 2015

Woman in Gold, Effie Gray

Woman in Gold
Effie Gray

Even as a critical filmgoer perceives the flaws in Simon Curtis’ “Woman in Gold,” about the late Maria Altmann’s efforts to recover Gustav Klimt’s iconic portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, which painting had been seized by the Nazis, he cannot deny its effectiveness or pretend to be surprised by the warm ovation it garners.

Helen Mirren plays Mrs. Altmann, and Ryan Reynolds is Randy Schoenberg (grandson of composer Arnold), the floundering young lawyer and family friend who takes her case to an Austrian art restitution committee, up to the U.S. Supreme Court on a procedural matter, and back to a binding arbitration panel. Interspersed with the legal wranglings are flashbacks to Maria’s childhood in Vienna, her marriage to Fritz and, as the Nazis close in, their narrow and perilous escape to America. Credit for the effectiveness of these scenes goes mostly to Tatiana Maslany, luminous as the young Maria. 

As an attorney, it’s often amusing to observe filmmakers’ conception of the law, and here even laypeople may snicker at a Supreme Court argument (conducted by Jonathan Pryce as Chief Justice Rehnquist) almost devoid of legal analysis, or an arbitration hearing held in public, before spectators. Daniel Brühl, so good as Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s “Rush,” plays a sympathetic Austrian (even now Austria remains one of the most Jew-hating countries outside the Islamic world) who scores Randy access to a warehouse of archived documents; after “staying up all night,” they find all the papers they need to stake Maria’s claim (Brühl even refers to one as their “trump card”). 

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s aphoristic and on-the-nose script (aggravated by Martin Phipps’ and Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score) calls for Maria to vacillate annoyingly between “justice must be done” perseverance and “we must move on” resignation. “Woman in Gold” works, though, thanks to another great performance by Mirren, who imbues Altmann with quiet dignity as well as crowd-pleasing irascibility. Reynolds can’t act a lick, but he sure fills out his suits nicely, while Katie Holmes is given the laughably retrograde role of Randy’s adoring wife. 

They’ll sell twice as many senior as adult tickets for the Victorian-era proto-feminist biopic “Effie Gray,” a stiff, starchy, stuffy and stilted portrayal of the marriage between art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) and Ms. Gray (Dakota Fanning) and the latter’s affair of the heart with Pre-Raphealite painter Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). The film’s main problem is an absence of nuance. From the start, John treats Euphemia icily at best, cruelly at worst (though never physically so). His parents (Julie Walters and David Suchet), with whom the couple live, are cartoons of domineering disdain.

Given the right material – such as last year’s terrific “Night Moves” – Fanning has proven capable of strong performances. Effie Gray, though, is not a flesh-and-blood person but a set of circumstances, and the three lead performances are equally static. (When the couple travel to Effie’s native Scotland in the hope of her recovering from an illness, Millais accompanies them to paint John’s portrait.) Emma Thompson, who wrote the script, plays Lady Eastlake, wife of the president of the Royal Academy. Voicing contemporary sympathy for Effie’s plight, Lady Eastlake connects Effie with a solicitor to help her have her marriage annulled. “Madness is not sufficient grounds for divorce,” he tells her, “but failure to consummate may be.” Despite Andrew Dunn’s gorgeous cinematography – a tone poem of blue – the whole thing is a case of coitus interruptus.

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