Dame Helen Mirren is a distinguished, resplendent, versatile and deservedly revered British star whose relentless courage and self-assurance have obviously convinced her she can play any role she so desires. True, she can play a lot of them. Aging, dowdy Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is not one of them.
GOLDA ★★ (2/4 stars)
Sure, she goes through the paces, but with her beauty disguised beyond recognition under a mélange of lines, wrinkles, gray hair, prosthetics and orthopedic shoes, one is constantly reminded we are watching a show-off acting experiment—the kind that should remain in a closed-door acting class. The narrative chronicles the activities of the late (and only female) Israeli prime minister during the tense 19 days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, but the film itself is too languidly paced to evoke much tension, even when Dame Helen is negotiating the future of Israel, especially with nothing but the offscreen cries of soldiers in combat to remind us there’s a war going on. The history that went down on paper is only verbalized on film, not dramatized. Without the aid of any actual battle scenes, the action takes place in the war room, which takes advantage of Mirren’s intense, impenetrable stares but robs the film of any badly needed energy. And though how Golda Meir saved her country from Egypt’s total annihilation is hardly the basis for amusement, the humorless script by Nicholas Martin and Guy Nattiv’s somber direction are so stripped of any possible lightness of tone that it’s an ordeal to get through it.
You get the impossible odds, the general skepticism of the cabinet ministers, and Nattiv hurdles in Golda’s unbalanced relationship with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (played with equally grave solemnity by famously dour Liev Schreiber) and you end up desperate for a smile or two. Aside from the factual dynamics, the film offers no pertinent insights into the woman behind the headlines. She’s sad to learn of the mounting atrocities. She doesn’t suffer fools easily. But who was she outside of the business meetings with top military advisors? A notorious chain smoker, she fills ashtrays with endless piles of cigarette butts, even in the hospital undergoing treatments for the aggressive lymphoma that eventually killed her. But the incessant smoking grows irritating and so does the lack of personal character revelation. I liked the occasional tenderness she extends to her female aides, especially the loyal assistant who washes the prime minister’s hair in the tub and pulls out handfuls of hair by the roots, thanks to her cancer treatments. But such intimacies are rare. Mostly we get maps and technical strategies that are hard to decipher.
The most touching moment in Golda comes in the final shots—black and white images on a television screen depicting the real Golda Meir warts and all, side by side with her arch adversary, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. Here at last is a flash of the grandmotherly charm that hints at a hidden sense of humor. The movie needs more of that charisma and fewer cigarette butts to make Golda a woman as memorable on the screen as she was in real life.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.