Directed by Guy Nattiv
Written by Nicholas Martin
Starring Helen Mirren, Camille Cottin and Liev Schreiber
Classification N/A; 100 minutes
Opens in theatres Aug. 25
As much of Hollywood races to digitally manipulate the faces of its famous stars – hello again, strangely young Indiana Jones – there remains an admirably stubborn cohort of filmmakers who insist on going the practical route, hiding their performers under gobs of makeup and prosthetics to achieve that old-school kind of cinematic hide-and-seek. Sometimes, the stunt works, as with Brendan Fraser’s remarkable transformation in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Other times, the results can be janky and even goofy, threatening to rip the audience out of the proceedings – here’s looking at you, Oppenheimer. And now, with the new film Golda, moviegoers must face the unconvincing visage of Helen Mirren as Israel’s Iron Lady.
In director Guy Nattiv’s political drama, the British actress stars as Israels’s first and so far only female prime minister, Golda Meir. But to do so, Mirren is slathered in head-to-toe faux-frumpiness, all wrinkles and wigs. There is no real age difference here – Mirren is 78 years old, playing Meir at 75 – but there could not possibly be two women more dissimilar in physical stature or presence. It is both a testament to the film’s makeup team and detriment to audiences that Mirren is simply unrecognizable. Because with casting like this, audiences will spend the majority of Nattiv’s film searching for the real Mirren rather than paying attention to what the actress is attempting to do.
Which might perhaps be for the best, as most of Nattiv’s film is a dry and frustrating affair. A tick-tock chronicle of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, whose internal clock seems to be running five minutes behind, the film follows Meir as she balances the concerns of her military, her people, her allies and her enemies to emerge from the 19-day conflict intact. The set-up itself is brilliant – a sly excuse to examine Meir in not a cradle-to-grave fashion but to paint a portrait of a controversial leader during a complicated time. Yet Nattiv and his screenwriter Nicholas Martin whiff every big dramatic swing they take.
With so much time holding the audience’s hands in sketching out the mechanics of the war – there are enough shots of maps here to earn a sponsorship from Rand McNally – the emotions and political motivations that drive Meir herself are washed out. Anyone who walks into the film knowing only the barest of basics about Meir – that she was tough, disciplined and an ardent Zionist – will exit it with that exact same base of knowledge. The same goes for any deeper understanding of Middle Eastern geopolitics, which seem to exist in the most burstable of bubbles here. (A closing title card reading that Meir’s “legacy of saving her country from annihilation leading to peace serves as her memorial” is a rather simple, almost insulting reduction of history.)
When Mirren’s casting was first announced, critics pounced on the fact that the actress is not Jewish. That shouldn’t rankle too much, unless everyone is also ready to get retroactively up in arms about Robert De Niro in Casino, Ian McKellen in the X-Men films, or Eric Bana in Munich (the latter film delivering a far knottier and compelling portrait of Israeli conflict, not to mention a better Meir thanks to the performance of Lynn Cohen). What should bother audiences, though, is just how lost Mirren seems to be – both under all the layers of makeup and in trying to find some sort of emotional centre to her character.
As if to show Mirren how easily such a living-history trick can be done, Liev Schreiber pops up halfway into the film for a quick appearance as Henry Kissinger. Sure, he has the slightest of edges as a Jewish performer playing a Jewish figure, but that’s just icing on the pareve cake. By not only nailing the politico’s gravel-voice shtick and bringing his own performative weight to the role, the actor waltzes in, chews the scenery with just the right amount of kosher-hammy gusto, and waltzes back out. Mazel tov, Liev.