"Woman in Gold" opens with the image of gold leaf being gingerly handled by the painter Gustav Klimt. The leaf is so thin that a breath can flatten it, and so delicate that static yanks it toward a canvas. We are watching Klimt, played briefly by Moritz Bleibtreu, painstakingly create the titular star of this movie, a 1907 painting titled "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I." It graced the Vienna apartment of the Jewish family that commissioned it until the Nazis annexed Austria, pulled it from the wall and kept it for themselves.
"Woman in Gold" tells the true story -- with some poetic license -- of Maria Altmann, a relative of the Bloch-Bauers who as a young woman escaped the Anschluss and began a new life in America. In the late 1990s, Maria (Helen Mirren), now a widow living in Los Angeles, decides to reclaim the portrait of her Aunt Adele. Easier said than done: Klimt's canvas has become one of Austria's national treasures, a centerpiece of the famed Belvedere Gallery. Maria, however, is determined to right this wrong. "People forget, you see," she tells her newly hired lawyer, Randol "Randy" Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). "Especially the young."
It's one of many noble sentiments in "Woman in Gold," but the movie feels about as substantial as that gold leaf. It's filled with rich factual and visual details -- the glossy direction is from Simon Curtis, and the painting itself is a dazzling re-creation by scenic artist Steve Mitchell -- but the characters and story are paper-thin. Reynold's Randy is an amiable blank (Katie Holmes, as his wife, barely even appears), while Mirren's Maria wavers erratically between crusader and quitter. Nuance is absent: The Austrian bureaucrats are so snide and superior that they nearly resemble the Nazis we see in flashbacks; Daniel Bruhl plays Hubertus Czernin, a helpful Viennese journalist with his own sob story.
Alexi K. Campbell's screenplay follows a predictable blueprint of other Weinstein Company movies, particularly "The King's Speech," "Philomena" and "The Railway Man." It's an ankle-deep story that feels even shallower when we learn what ultimately became of Adele's portrait (and a handful of sister Klimts). No spoilers, but the outcome does not fully stir the heart.