Movie review: Helen Mirren shines as Israeli prime minister in “Golda”

It’s wonderful to see Helen Mirren taking on a meaty role into which she can sink her highly talented teeth.

In recent years, the acclaimed English actor has been spending some of her on-screen time bringing a little bit of class to movies in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. And last year she showed up in borderline-unwatchable DC Extended Universe affair “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” (As the DCEU is no more, let us simply never speak of that one again.)

Now, though, Mirren, who earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in 2006’s “The Queen,” portrays another significant figure in the last several decades of world history.

“Golda” — a sturdy if not-quite-stellar drama already in theaters in select markets and going wider this week — sees Mirren as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, the only woman to hold the position.

With the help of excellent work from costume designer Sinéad Kidao (“Small Axe”) and hair and makeup supervisor Karen Hartley Thomas (“The Courier”), Mirren all but disappears into the role. Her physical but delicate performance is the strongest element of this film from director Guy Nattiv and writer Nicholas Martin (“Florence Foster Jenkins”).

Not a traditional biopic, “Golda” focuses on Meir during the roughly three weeks surrounding the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, when the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan attacked her country during its holiest day.

However, we are introduced to the film’s Golda in 1974, as she is being driven to give testimony before the Agranat Commission, which is looking into the failure of Israel Defense Forces in the time leading up to the war. In what will be a common sight in the narrative to come, Gold works on a cigarette, putting it out in a full ashtray as she exits the vehicle.

“Golda” then takes us back to those hours before the attack, as intelligence suggests such an attack may be coming but some of her advisers aren’t so sure.

As the story progresses, Golda will come to rely less on Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan (Rami Heuberger, “Schindler’s List”) and more on General David “Dado” Elazar (Lior Ashkenazi, “Big Bad Wolves”), chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. She is with the latter on more than one occasion as she absorbs often heartbreaking radio transmissions from the battlefield. We don’t really see any fighting in “Golda,” but the titular character, in the hands of Mirren, is effective enough in reminding us about the horrors of war.

Behind the scenes, Golda relies on an assistant, Lou Kadar (Camille Cottin, “Call My Agent!”), as the leader fights the lymphoma that in 1978 will take her life. Kadar not only works to ensure she eats and helps her bathe, but she also forces Golda to leave her bed on a very important day when her pain is getting the best of her.

With apologies to Kadar, Heuberger and Ashkenazi, though, Mirren’s strongest scene partner in “Golda” is Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan,” “Spotlight”), who portrays U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and who, like Mirren, virtually vanishes into the character. The small handful of exchanges between Golda and Henry, coming mostly over the phone but once face to face as Kissinger flies into Israel, are “Golda” as its most crackling. It’s engrossing stuff as Golda works — at times more gently than at others — to get more support from her ally, who insists he is largely hamstrung by President Richard M. Nixon being consumed with the Watergate scandal.

Nattiv, whose directorial credits include“The Flood” (2002) and “Skin” (2018) and who was a 3-month-old in Tel Aviv on the night of the attack, brings a steady hand to “Golda. His is a less-is-more approach, which generally works, but considering the film is billed as a “ticking-clock thriller,” you wouldn’t mind a few more moments of the highly charged variety.

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He seems to be more interested in a meditation on the fog of war, aided metaphorically by the regularly present visual of the cigarette smoke Golda generates. He is assisted in this endeavor by admirable work by director of photography Jasper Wolf (“Bodies Bodies Bodies”) and production designer Arad Sawat (“Absentia”), who help achieve the film’s stark look.

All of those cigarettes, as unhealthy as they are, bring a certain charm to Golda and “Golda.” She even puffs away on a medical examination table, having been ushered secretly into a hospital by Lou and a few others, the doctor telling her that her condition has not worsened.

“But the cigarettes and the back coffee — you’re making my job much harder,” the doctor gently scolds her.

“And you mine,” she responds.

When all that smoke clears, “Golda” stands as a worthwhile, if narrowly focused, portrait of the “Iron Lady of Israel.”


Where: Theaters.

When: Sept. 1.

Rated: PG-13 for thematic material and pervasive smoking.

Runtime: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Stars (of four): 3.

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