A pair of legendary Oscar-winning women take on unlikely, transformative roles in a pair of films opening in Portland this week.
The sexy, glamorous Juliette Binoche cleans toilets in the working-class drama Between Two Worlds, while Dame Helen Mirren (aka the narrator of Barbie) adds a surprising name to the roster of world leaders she’s played as she takes on the role of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in Golda. While neither is completely new territory for these veteran performers, and neither film is a complete success, both provide a great opportunity to appreciate impressive performances in the sorts of roles that American films so often deny to women over a certain age.
It’s a bit of a cheat to say that Binoche plays a humble cleaning woman in director Emmanuel Carrère’s blandly titled Between Two Worlds. In fact, it’s made clear early on that she’s actually a reporter going undercover in order to write about the struggles of France’s invisible underclass. After being placed by an employment agency with a janitorial company, she learns firsthand about both the exploitation and camaraderie of labor.
Eventually, she joins the cleaning crew of the Ouisterham, an enormous ferry that runs between Caen and Portsmouth across the English Channel. (The film is based on the nonfiction book Le Quai de Ouistreham, for which the French author Florence Aubenas undertook the same project as Binoche’s character.) Here, the frenetic pace involved in cleaning hundreds of cabins and making hundreds of beds during the narrow window between departure and boarding emphasizes the nearly impossible burdens placed on these unseen workers. It also increases the bond between them, which only makes the inevitable revelation of Binoche’s deception more painful to her comrades.
And that’s where the film loses its emotional and political heft. By turning Between Two Worlds into a story about journalistic ethics, the focus shifts from the ostensible subject of capitalistic excesses to the well-meaning savior willing to get her hands dirty (temporarily) to learn about them.
Binoche is, of course, very good in the role, but not enough to make you forget she’s a movie star. I was reminded of Charlize Theron’s grimy turn in North Country several years back. There’s an easy but revealing contrast to be made between a film such as this one and the work of the Dardennes brothers, who tell stories of those souls cast into the societal Inferno without needing a Virgil to hold our hand as we descend. (Opens at the Living Room Theaters on Friday, August 25, and at Eugene’s Broadway Metro on September 8)
(As an aside, the Living Room Theaters have set up a double dose of le Binoche by bringing back the social media catfishing drama Who You Think I Am, which originally played the theater in 2021.)
While Binoche remains recognizable in Between Two Worlds, that’s far less true of Mirren, who plays Meir under a heavy, largely convincing makeup job. (Anyone upset about Bradly Cooper’s nose in Maestro may want to steer clear of this film.) Of course, a latex mask can’t hide the take-no-bullshit vibe that makes Mirren a surprisingly perfect choice to play the iconic Israeli leader, and Golda is better than the stunt-ish casting might lead you to expect. After all, when you’ve played both Queen Elizabeths, Golda Meir isn’t that much of a leap.
Although the focus is rightly on Meir, the movie isn’t a straight biography. Rather, it straightforwardly focuses on the Yom Kippur War of 1973, in which Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a surprise attack on Israel, puncturing the sense of invincibility the country had achieved following its overwhelming victory in the Six Days’ War seven years earlier. Writer Nicholas Martin, whose only previous feature was the lightweight Florence Foster Jenkins, doesn’t spoon-feed the audience on the basics of Arab-Israeli history or politics, which allows the film to dive right into the intensity of what becomes a national existential crisis. Meir and her war council, which includes severely rattled Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, no-nonsense Chief of Staff David Elazar, and gung-ho General Ariel Sharon, debate military strategy and try to apportion blame for the intelligence failures that led to the surprise attack. (A framing device has Meir testifying before a postwar commission on that second question.) Meanwhile, Meir negotiates with Henry Kissinger (a weirdly cast Liev Schreiber) over the terms of American assistance.
Director Guy Nattiv, who won an Oscar in 2019 for his live-action short film Skin, handles his ensemble cast nimbly, and gives Mirren a chance to emote during scenes where she’s haunted by the fatal choices she’s forced to make. As a monument to a historic figure who has been somewhat forgotten today, and as a reminder of the fragility of peace in the Middle East, Golda does what it sets out to do. One note, however, for Nattiv: using archival footage of Meir and Kissinger at times only points out the flaws (if that’s the right word) in Mirren’s and, especially, Schreiber’s performances. Don’t do that. (Opens Friday, August 25, at Bridgeport Village, Clackamas Town Center, Eugene Art House, and other theaters)
ALSO OPENING THIS WEEK:
Aurora’s Sunrise: This fascinating hybrid of animation, interview footage, and clips from a hundred-year-old movie tells the story of Aurora Mardiganian, who was born in 1901 in Armenia. As a teenager, she witnessed, fled from, and was nearly killed in the genocide perpetrated by the Turks against her people. She wrote a book about her experiences, which was turned into an unfinished silent-film epic that was thought lost for decades. And she lived into her 90s, when she spoke again about what she had seen. This firsthand history filtered through formal experimentation is an incredibly important document. (Cinema 21)
Bank of Dave: Rory Kinnear stars as a self-made millionaire who decides to start his own non-profit community bank, but has to deal with London’s financial elites to do so. Cameo by Def Leppard! (Kiggins Theatre)
The Elephant 6 Recording Co.: Documentary exploring the titular music label, which was responsible for launching the careers of such influential ’90s bands as Neutral Milk Hotel, The Apples in Stereo, of Montreal, the Minders, and many others. (Cinema 21, Friday; Clinton Street Theater, Saturday [benefit screening for Martyn Leaper of the Minders, who will perform and participate in a Q&A])
Ignore Heroes – The True Sounds of Liberty: This new documentary revisits the brief, violent career of the hardcore punk band T.S.O.L. Followed by a Q&A with T.S.O.L. front man Jack Grisham. (Hollywood, Saturday)
FRIDAY: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (Academy, all week); A cornucopia of crazy cartoons new and old in Cartoon Damage (Clinton); Brandon Lee in The Crow (Cinemagic, also Thursday); Cruel Intentions (Hollywood); Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (Eugene Art House, all week); the 1973 French animated masterpiece Fantastic Planet (5th Avenue Cinema, through Sunday); Steven Spielberg’s Hook (Academy, all week); Mystery Men (Cinemagic, also Tuesday); Thelma & Louise (Hollywood, all week)
SATURDAY: Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Cinemagic); The Incredibles (Cinemagic); Rear Window (Cinema 21); A Room with a View (Hollywood)
SUNDAY: American Graffiti (Eugene Art House, also Wednesday); Karl Urban IS the law in Dredd (Cinemagic, also Wednesday); Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (Hollywood); Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Living Room); Watchmen: The Director’s Cut (Cinemagic, also Monday)
TUESDAY: David Lowery’s medieval mood piece The Green Knight (Clinton, free); Star Trek: The Motion Picture—The Director’s Cut (Hollywood)
WEDNESDAY: 1983: The Year in Videos (Hollywood); The 1947 Soviet animated fantasy The Humpbacked Horse (Clinton)
THURSDAY: Practical Magic (Hollywood)