Reviewed by: Jane Fae

"A crisp, downbeat, clever exploration of the issues, combined with a whodunnit." | Photo: Courtesy of the French Film Festival UK

Woke, worthy and – if you have even a smidgeon of concern over the future of this planet – worrying in the extreme. Not happy holiday viewing for the likes of British and French premiers Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron. Goliath is that rarest of beasts; a genuine political thriller, with its focus firmly set on the politics, rather than some confected plot about assassinations, or palace coups.

Showing at the 31st French Film Festival in November/December 2023, Goliath asks the question of what those who care about the environment can do in the face of corporate lying, bullying and dirty tricks.

At its heart are three impressive performances. We begin with the focus on Patrick (Gilles Lellouche), an environmental lawyer and campaigner, fighting for compensation following the death of a young woman from cancer. Because this, as the narrative quickly makes clear, is no sad accident of fate, but the result of breathing in a pesticide, tetrazine, peddled by evil megacorp, Phytosanis.

He is pitted against Mathias (Pierre Niney), a cold, calculating and frighteningly effective lobbyist, who has sold his soul to the aforementioned megacorp.

Between the two sits France (Emanuelle Bercot), schoolteacher by day, part-time worker, and reluctant activist, who has been pitched into the middle of this battle when her husband develops cancer, allegedly through exposure to this pesticide.

Plenty of room here for a pivot to the dramatic, at the expense of the issues… or for an upbeat “villains get their come-uppance/good guys celebrate”, à la Erin Brockovich. Thankfully, writer-director, Frédéric Tellier, who made his name directing TV police and crime dramas for a French audience, does not succumb to the temptation.

What we get here is a crisp, downbeat, clever exploration of the issues, combined with a whodunnit in which, unusually, we know the identity of the doer from the very start; but are left wondering, until the very end, whether they will get away with it. In this he is aided and abetted by his co-writers, Gaëlle Bellan and Simon Moutaïrou.

Political drama is fraught with risk. On the one hand, there is the danger, already alluded to, that those holding the purse strings will lose heart and blink, blunting the politics with superfluous action. On the other, the fear that most of us have when presented with anything tagged as ‘political’, is that they will inevitably tip towards preachiness, if not outright propaganda; and that is even before the inevitable boredom sets in from – yawn! – the dialectical analysis of the role of the proletariat in achieving blah blah blah.

OK. Interest to declare; axe to grind. I am far from unsympathetic to the analysis provided by Goliath, which, it pleases me to report, goes far beyond the simplistic banalities so often served up by AngloSsaxon political film.

There is action here, some of it quite shocking. There are also long interludes of dialogue in which both sides get to put a point of view in what feels like a more than decent exposition of their case. But, see above: it is possible that my bias is showing and someone more attuned to the anti-eco side of the fence might disagree.

Though, if anything, it felt to me that, so keen were the writers to avoid accusations of partisanship, they stepped well across the line to make sure the villains got the space to put their arguments; and not just as straw men to be knocked down. No, at times, one was left wondering why anyone would listen to the whinging eco’s, whose arguments were all heart and feeling and very little hard fact.

Then one is reminded of two things: that the bad guys really are bad, and they are in it for the money; and that when their backs are to the wall, they will do some very bad stuff indeed.

Goliath is a gripping film with something to say to all of us. If you get a chance in 2023, do go and see it.

Aside: referenced as part of one straightforward exchange is the recent Covid pandemic. Hearing the actors speak the C-word, I wondered: have I seen a single English language drama over the past two years that has mentioned it. Again, perhaps it is me. Or perhaps it is a sort of French readiness to engage with the real world, sadly lacking of late in English-speaking cinema.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2023
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Goliath packshot
In the aftermath of President Macron's U-turn on a glyphosate ban, the stories of lawyer Patrick, victim France and lobbyist Mathias intertwine when the wife of a farmer dead from cancer commits a terrible act of protest.

Director: Frédéric Tellier

Writer: Gaëlle Bellan, Simon Moutaïrou, Frédéric Tellier

Starring: Gilles Lellouche, Pierre Niney, Emmanuelle Bercot

Year: 2022

Runtime: 101 minutes

Country: France

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