After much tv helming, Simon Curtis’s first feature is a paint-by-the-numbers drama. But sometimes that’s enough. The true story (truer than most of its ilk) is about Maria Altman’s legal battle to regain family art work stolen by the Nazis from their home in Vienna, later appropriated by Austria as National Treasures. Neatly played & structured in non-linear past remembrances as well as in the present where Altman gets help navigating international court procedures from a junior-league lawyer who’s not only a family friend, but also grandson to another L.A. German-exile, serial composer Arnold Schoenberg. The film is very much this year’s PHILOMENA/’13: stubborn senior, played by a beloved British Dame, on the hunt for a lost piece of her past; joined at the hip by a struggling professional in career-crisis, played by a lighter-weight actor. (Similar age differences, too.) Add on an immovable object in opposition offering false claims of reform once the two leads travel to (or from) the U.S. before a bittersweet have-and-have-not resolution. (Budgets & grosses also similar.) Well, why not? This film turns the trick equally well, maybe better.* Ryan Reynolds makes a bland lawyer (though he hardly competes with ‘wife’ Katie Holmes in luster lack!), but it matters little in the generally well-cast film. Not when it gives Helen Mirren such opportunities for bravura underplaying! Listen close, that’s no Austro-German accent on her. Instead, the unmistakable cadence & tones of Ingrid Bergman, and very effective it is. As indeed are the flashbacks, superbly conceived & all the more suspenseful for coming at us piecemeal from some safe place in the future.
DOUBLE-BILL: *Might as well take the suggested lesson in story construction and revisit PHILOMENA.