1 June 2024

Golda dominates a pivotal, irrefutable period in Israeli history

| Rama Gaind
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movie scene of woman drinking and smoking

A skilfully made-up Helen Mirren takes the lead in Golda, a biopic of Israel’s only female prime minister, Golda Meir. Photo: Supplied.

Dame Helen Mirren turns her impressive acting talent to a demanding new role in her latest biopic as Golda, who was Israel’s only female head of government – from 1969 to 1974 – and the first in the Middle East.

Often referred to as the ”Iron Lady of Israel”, Golda Meir (1898-1978) was elected as the fourth prime minister at the grand age of 70. She felt her greatest accomplishment was her role in the creation of the state of Israel.

Mirren (The Audience, Prime Suspect) is remembered for her ingenious and compassionate portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen (2006), for which she won an Academy Award. However, in Golda we do not recognise her beneath layers of heavy prosthetics and a swirl of incessant cigarette smoke. Nevertheless, she blends into the role, accurately conveying envisioned feelings, making an impact on the turbulent political times.

In this factual drama, Meir is faced with the potential of Israel’s destruction and must navigate overwhelming odds, a sceptical cabinet and a complex relationship with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (Liev Schreiber, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Asteroid City, The Manchurian Candidate) as millions of lives hang in the balance during the tense 19 days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

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Her tough leadership, actions in impossible circumstances and compassion ultimately decide the fate of her nation, leaving her with a controversial legacy around the world.

Oscar-winning Israeli director Guy Nattiv (Skin, The Flood, Strangers) shows the film taking place during the Fourth Arab-Israeli War, fought between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria, from 6-25 October, 1973. It was a serious and devastating situation, which drastically tested Meir. Nattiv takes no sides – only depicting the struggles of a leader to survive physically and nationally.

Nicholas Martin’s melancholy script puts the focus on the conflict with an extremely splendid potted history of the Israeli state offered in the film’s opening montage.

Mirren naturally finds ways to reveal glimmers of humanity in her characterisation. Even though Meir is not doing well and suffering from lymphoma, it does not deter her from smoking. It can be stifling. She smokes at every opportunity, inhaling nicotine like it’s oxygen, even as she’s lying down seconds before receiving radiation.

Mirren performs with naturalism and nuance, capturing Meir’s tenacity, willpower and steadfast commitment to her country. She comfortably channels Meir’s perseverance and sorrow, and all the while we marvel at the brilliance of make-up and hair designer Karen Hartley Thomas, prosthetics designer Suzi Battersby and prosthetic make-up artist Ashra Kelly-Blue. No wonder Golda collected an Academy Award nomination for best make-up and hairstyling this year!

The film concentrates as much on a moment in history as it does on the woman. It is brought vividly to life by Mirren sharing the intensely dramatic events, high-stakes responsibilities and controversial decisions. She was kind-hearted to her employees.

A warm and conscientious mother-of-two, Meir is torn by guilt, though seen alone, but for her loyal private secretary Lou Kaddar (a caring Camille Cottin, Stillwater, House of Gucci).

Meir’s convivial personality is evident during her conversations with Kissinger, played with discreet wittiness and acumen by Schreiber. Other intriguing instants of mockery and artful manipulation give us a glimpse of a more appealing side to Meir. Seen towards the end of the film, the vibrant, poised energy displayed in real-life footage of Meir outshines a table full of male statesmen at the peace accord.

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Such liveliness is not quite captured in the film. Though it is a well-made retelling of an important period in history, and a biography, it’s easy to see how Meir influenced gently.

A hero outside of Israel and controversial in her own land, her legacy of saving her country from annihilation, leading to peace, serves as her memorial. Meir did live to see the signing of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt on 17 September, 1978, which paved the way to peace. It was the first treaty between Israel and any of its Arab neighbours. The 1974 Agranat Commission of Inquiry cleared Meir of any wrongdoing for her part in the Yom Kippur War.

The narrative is skilfully crafted, taking us on a compelling journey through Golda Meir’s life and career. The film masterfully blends historical footage with dramatised scenes, seamlessly transporting the audience back in time.

Golda, Transmission Films, is screening in cinemas

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