The opening shot of Woman in Gold rests on a sheer sheet of gold leaf luxuriating on a sunlit table, and it's one of the most seductive introductions of a movie character since Lana Turner dropped her lipstick in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Supple and voluptuous, it ripples as skilled hands slice it in half with a palette knife, anoint the coarse hairs of a paintbrush with its buttery essence, and daub it onto a canvas as part of a magnificent halo surrounding a dark-haired woman's portrait.
Gold, in all of its forms, is at the heart of this movie, and not just in the literal patina of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the unforgettable masterwork by Gustav Klimt that is being painted in the opening scenes. It's the symbolic treasure plundered by conquering despots -- in this case by the Nazis, who stole the aureate portrait from Bloch-Bauer's walls, and covered their tracks by obliterating the subject's Jewish name from the title and rechristening it as "Woman in Gold." But it's also found in the glow of nostalgia, in the soft autumnal memories of the now exterminated family, whose weddings and Seders and Sunday afternoon cello practices were watched over by the portrait -- which now hangs on a museum wall, where docents regard her as "the Mona Lisa of Austria."
Only one woman remembers otherwise: the emphatic and queenly Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), folding the sweaters in her Los Angeles boutique just so after returning from her sister's funeral. One afternoon, she corners rookie lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds, nebbishy in oval spectacles) on her front lawn and makes him a friendly but forceful offer to have some homemade strudel and look over some documents left behind in her sister's estate -- documents that, in fact, establish her as the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer and her portrait's rightful owner.
As courtroom dramas go, this isn't A Few Good Men. They'll either get the portrait or they won't, and a series of arbitrations and hearings in Austria and the United States inch the proceedings forward. And Maria is a flighty contrarian, throwing up roadblocks when the plot is moving too smoothly: She simply must get her portrait back, yet refuses to return to Austria to do so. But drive faster, because she wants to buy duty-free perfume at the airport before boarding her flight to Vienna. Schoenberg has his doubts, too, but when he voices objections -- too much work, they'll never win -- he gets pep talks from his wife Pam (Katie Holmes) and a leftist journalist (Daniel Brühl) sympathetic to their crusade. And later, of course, the screenplay needs them to create artificial tension by shaking their heads and telling our heroes that nothing can be done.
But no matter how transparent all of this melodramatic seesawing gets, the film never loses the audience's goodwill. Woman in Gold has a populist purity of heart that's disappeared from American motion pictures since, well, Hollywood's golden age. Ryan Reynolds is an honest heir to the Jimmy Stewart tradition of a good man fighting against larger forces, and while Helen Mirren isn't challenging herself as yet another regal curmudgeon, no one can accuse her of phoning it in, either. Woman in Gold may be as insubstantial as a sheet of gold leaf, but when the stuff it's made of is still 24 karats, who can complain?