Maverick Life

SMOKE BUT NO FIRE

Half-baked biopic of Israeli ‘Iron Lady’ does little to light up her legacy

Half-baked biopic of Israeli ‘Iron Lady’ does little to light up her legacy
Golda Meir shakes hands with Moshe Sharet as David Ben-Gurion (left) looks on, after signing the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum on 14 May, 1948. (Photo: Shershel Frank/Israeli Government Press Office/EPA-EFE)

The story of Golda Meir could have been great, but instead it oddly feels like an anti-smoking public service announcement. 

Based on a screenplay by writer Nicholas Martin and directed by Guy Nattiv, who won an Oscar for Best Short Film for Skin, Golda tediously follows Israel’s first and only woman prime minister, Golda Meir, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Golda has all the makings of a movie that could sweep the Oscars: an intense conflict — Israel’s counterattack against Egypt and Syria — is headed up by a 75-year-old woman suffering a deadly disease in secret.

Nattiv’s choice to focus on the dire consequences of the Arab-Israel war had enormous potential. But mediocre storytelling means the biopic is likely to end up in the forgettable pile.

Bizarrely, the movie shies away from exploring Meir’s early life of crushing poverty, failing to tell how she managed to escape the trap of insufficient education, early marriage and motherhood to become the conservative country’s most powerful person. Without a good enough back story, viewers struggle to sympathise with Meir.

Celebrated and multi-award-winning British actress Helen Mirren plays the title character, who drowns in prosthetics, make-up and a grey wig.

These visual cues are coupled with an irritatingly ubiquitous cigarette to signal Meir’s ill health and anxiety. When we meet her, she is holding a cigarette between nicotine-stained fingers, making seemingly impulsive decisions in the hopes of saving her country.

The film obsesses over Meir’s chain-smoking, turning it into an anti-cigarette campaign. Every scene resembles a stoner’s room, or else the camera zooms in or out of an ashtray filled with butts. In one scene, the filmmakers try to combine the smoke coming out of Meir’s mouth with the fires from the front line of the war. We get it: war bad; smoking bad.

Meir is even seen smoking during her secretive meet-ups with her doctor at the morgue to treat her lymphoma. The cigarette stays with her on her deathbed as she trades a nebuliser for a puff. 

Mirren is known for her polished performances — she won an Academy Award for portraying Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 in The Queen, a film that also focused on a short, intense time in the life of a ruling woman.

Helen Mirren in the role of Golda Meir

Helen Mirren in the role of Golda Meir, the first and only female Israeli prime minister. (Photo: Courtesy of Bleecker Street)

But Mirren’s considerable talent couldn’t lift the lacklustre script, which gives the viewer little insight into the challenges of working with a male-dominated Cabinet during the daunting 19 days of the Yom Kippur War.

For a war movie, the production is disappointingly dialogue-heavy, with the characters talking about what is happening instead of letting us witness the intensity of the sudden conflict.

Viewers are left to imagine the severity of the war while watching repetitive scenes of maps spread on tables, back-and-forth meetings, deafening sounds of telephones, aggressive clicks of a typewriter, recordings of explosions and, of course, intense smoking, initiated by the sound of Zippo lighters.

The supporting characters remain two-­dimensional strangers with no back story.

Even French actress and comedienne Camille Cottin’s exceptional performance as Meir’s caregiver — in which she gives warm baths and cleans up bloody vomit — is not enough to cover up the film’s many flaws.

In the end, it felt like a pretty dull lecture on the hazards of smoking. Two stars out of five. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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  • anniesusskind says:

    Brilliant review thank you – clever writing but not the clever-clever kind is just point/scoring for the sake of a turn of phrase or just being a smartass.

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