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'Woman in Gold' Is a Gilt-y Pleasure

In a true story, Helen Mirren is the picture of pure determination

Woman in Gold

Robert Viglasky/Courtesy The Weinstein Company

Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) and her lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) bring the stolen “Woman in Gold” home to family.

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Stars: Frances Fisher, Katie Holmes, Elizabeth McGovern, Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren

Director: Simon Curtis

Plenty of stars glitter in Woman in Gold. But the film's impact comes from the fact that it is real: It's the compelling true story of a woman who sought justice in the face of seemingly insurmountable international obstacles.

For the second time in a year, the recovery of art treasures stolen by the Nazis gets the big Hollywood star treatment. But where George Clooney's The Monuments Men was a high-stakes wartime drama with a crack military team hunting down caves filled with purloined masterpieces, Woman in Gold is much more intimate in scale. This also makes it more affecting.

Maria Altmann was just a child when her Jewish family escaped Vienna. They left behind their extensive art collection, including a 1907 portrait of Maria's aunt by the celebrated Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

In the postwar years, the work became the centerpiece of the city's art museum. To the millions who loved it, the painting was known only as "Woman in Gold," effectively erasing the name of its Jewish subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The film never explains why Altmann, who had long since relocated to Los Angeles, waited until the 1990s to try to reclaim the work; thankfully for us, she tarried long enough to be played here by Helen Mirren.

Wide-eyed with indignation and quietly confident of her ultimate success, Mirren's Altmann is an adorable foil to her frequently exasperated young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). He starts out merely humoring his mother's friend, only to wind up every bit as obsessed with the quest as Altmann is.

The development of the pair's friendship carries the film, which otherwise spends lots of time in hearing rooms and dusty archives.

Director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) does a nice job of shifting the power dynamics between the two; when Randol (or "Randy," as Maria calls him) perceives the roadblocks to recovering the painting as insuperable, Maria's calm determination drives the pair on. And just when Maria seems ready to surrender to the apparent futility of their mission, Randol conjures up the energy to continue. (To be fair, the film acknowledges that "Woman in Gold" is worth tens of millions of dollars, and that Randol stands to make a handsome commission if he and Maria prevail.)

A gallery of familiar faces pop up in the course of the story, starting with Katie Holmes as Randol's long-suffering wife and continuing with guest stars such as Elizabeth McGovern, Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce and Frances Fisher.

There is, of course, a climactic courtroom scene. By then, however, the ultimate fate of "Woman in Gold" seems almost secondary. Not only have Maria and Randol pointed fingers of guilt at the storm troopers who vandalized Europe 70 years ago, they've cast a shadow of complicity across the people and nations who, when it served their purposes, spent the ensuing decades desperately attempting to paint over those atrocities.

Happily, in this case, the serene face of "Woman in Gold" shines through the whitewash.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.