Helen Mirren gets lost beneath layers of heavy prosthetics and a swirl of incessant cigarette smoke in “Golda.”
Given that she’s one of the greatest actresses of her time, Mirren naturally finds ways to reveal glimmers of humanity in her portrayal of former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. But the artifice of her physical transformation too often smothers her, resulting in a stoicism that makes her an elusive figure. Director Guy Nattiv’s film takes place during the 19-day Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Arab forces, led by Egypt, attacked Israel during its holiest time of the year. It was a dire and deadly situation to be sure, and it severely tested Meir, who remains the only woman ever to hold that leadership position.
But underneath the bushy eyebrows, wiry wig, and thick ankles, who was she? Aside from the obvious ache she experiences when she learns of mounting Israeli casualties, how did she feel about this conflict?
Working from a script by Nicholas Martin, Nattiv depicts this fraught period through a series of dry, repetitive strategy meetings between Meir and her top military advisers. He favors overhead shots of maps spread across conference room tables, with ashtrays packed with crushed cigarette butts scattered among them. Meir was a notorious chain smoker, and we see her lighting up every chance she gets—even as she’s lying in the hospital receiving treatments for her aggressive lymphoma. We hear the click of her lighter so often it actually becomes annoying.
This ailment might have allowed us to better understand Meir, but she remains frustratingly out of reach, even in her suffering. But there’s a bitter irony in the fact that she sees her doctor in secret at the morgue, and each time she walks down the hallway toward her appointment, more and more bodies are stacked up along the walls. It’s a powerful image.
We see Meir’s spirit and her spark, though, in her conversations with U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played with understated wit and wisdom by an always-terrific Liev Schreiber. Here is someone who truly understands what she’s going through and with whom she can speak more openly as a peer. In these moments, it’s as if the clouds have parted and a ray of sunlight is shining through. Mirren and Schreiber have a warm chemistry with each other and share a sense of humor that’s missing elsewhere. One scene in particular, involving a bowl of homemade borscht, speaks volumes about who these people are and the values that define them. “Golda” as a whole could have used a lot more of that kind of revelation.
We also see Meir’s kind-heartedness in the way she treats her employees, especially the women who work for her. She has a lovely rapport with Camille Cottin (“Stillwater”), the loyal aide who tenderly washes Meir’s hair in the tub, pulling out chunks as a result of her cancer treatment. Again, these moments of humanity feel too few and far between.
Instead, Nattiv relies too heavily on interspersing archival war footage into conversations to illustrate what the characters are talking about, including Rami Heuberger as Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Lior Ashkenazi as Israeli military chief David “Dado” Elazar. All are solid despite being stuck in one-note roles. Nattiv’s 2019 drama “Skin”—based on his Oscar-winning, live-action short of the same name—had a visceral quality to its pacing, but “Golda” feels comparatively sedate.
The most tantalizing moment comes at the end; by then, it’s too late. We see a black-and-white snippet of the real Golda Meir on television, sitting beside Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat at a news conference, radiating humor and charisma, using her power as a woman to charm and disarm. That’s the person Helen Mirren could have brought tremendously to life.
Now playing in theaters.