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Golda movie review: Helen Mirren’s biopic has little fire, and even less spark

Sure, war is a game of smoke and mirrors. But surely, it isn’t cigarette smoke. In Golda, it is. Nattiv’s Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only woman prime minister, is one of those leaders whom history has not judged too kindly. She might have taken Israel past the Yom Kippur War, after its neighbours Egypt, Syria and Jordan launched a surprise attack, but not having a clean victory often reflects poorly on politicians, such as her.

Nattiv is trying to negotiate the grey area here, in the light of recently released documents showing Meir was misled by her military advisors, into reacting to warnings late. A woman among battle-hardened men, who think and live and die in trenches, is a compelling story of its own. A woman fighting cancer secretly, a survivor of a harsh childhood in Ukraine, ageing and ailing, in orthopaedic shoes, doing that, even more so.

In the hands of Nattiv though, Golda is little fire, and even less spark. The film moves gloomily through dull corridors and barely lit rooms, often across a morgue full of corpses, even as the many characters pore over dull lamps and talk strategy, which makes no real sense when the only action we get is the sound of gunfire and dying men which a grimacing Meir hears over headphones.

Even this strategy, of sticking faithfully with Meir, and only Meir, through the 21 days from the start of the war to the ceasefire – along with her faithful assistant played by Cottin – could work if the film was able to bring some dramatic encounters into the plot.

For example, the exchange between Meir and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Schreiber) across her kitchen table. She brings on emotional blackmail, introducing her housekeeper as a “survivor”, watches him gulp down a soup he doesn’t want to have, and then underlines their shared Jewishness, to stump the wily Kissinger. He says, “I am an American first, then the Secretary of State, and then a Jew.” She replies: “You forget, in Israel, we read right to left.”

This is apparently a true exchange, recounted often by Kissinger in real life. As is the kitchen effect that makes the scene so special, with Meir known to host crucial meetings over food, often one she cooked herself. However, scenes which throb with such genuineness, tension or even warmth are few and far between. A stenographer with a young son at the front is placed in Meir’s office just to underline the PM’s grief at the lives lost in battle, a guilt that she seemingly bore to the end.

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The real-life footage that intersperses Golda shows a more sprightly, even canny, PM, who knew when charm and jokes work as well as threats, such as her telling Egypt President Anwar Sadat that she is willing to raise “an army of widows and orphans” in his country’s ranks.

Mirren is almost unrecognisable behind those prosthetics and jowl – though the bag, gait, shoes and thick stockings must have come to her easy from her role in Queen. However, the actor in her can barely be repressed, shining forth given half a chance – through those replaceable men, through that curious music, through the deliberate glumness, through those shots of overflowing ashtrays, through the use of cigarette packs as stand-ins for tanks, and most importantly, through all that smoke.

Director: Guy Nattiv

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Cast: Helen Mirren, Liev Schreiber, Camille Cottin, Zed Josef, Rami Heuberger, Lior Ashkenazi

Rating: 2.5 stars

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