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ORTHODOX Film Review
Directed By David Leon
Genre: Crime - Drama
Stephen Graham is the British equivalent of what the Americans call “that guy”: his face is familiar but you can’t remember the name. And that says a lot for the range of roles he inhabits and his abilities as an actor. Combo in Sean Meadows’ This Is England series, gangsters Baby Face Nelson in Public Enemies and Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire and, more recently, the corrupt cop in Hyena. His resume goes back to the 90s, takes in TV and Hollywood, but his roots remain in this country and the British film industry.
His latest, ORTHODOX, arrives on DVD this week. He’s very much centre stage and hardly off the screen as Ben, who was bullied at school because of his Jewish faith and learned boxing to defend himself. He continues with the sport as an adult, but to make money: the family butcher’s shop barely brings in enough to support his family, so lifelong friend Shannon (Michael Smiley) gets him unofficial fights. But it’s a friendship that sends him to prison and, when he’s released, his previous life has gone. He has to choose: stay friends with Shannon or reconcile himself with his community and his own conscience.
In fact, Ben has always been something of an outsider in his community. He still practises his faith, although not as regularly as his rabbi would like. We see him observing the tefillin (an orthodox prayer method) and he almost constantly wears his kippah (skull cap). His wife, Alice (Rebecca Callard), takes the faith seriously as well and converted to Judaism so they could marry. But she feels that everybody looks down on them because of their money problems and the older members of the community refer to her as a shiksa (the disparaging term for a gentile wife). And starting boxing created a gulf between Ben and his father that never healed and made him something of an outcast. His prison term makes things worse.
While it features extensively in the film’s trailer, boxing is essentially the catalyst for the story. The real theme here is fighting – Ben’s fight against bullies, against anti-semitism, against the hand that life has dealt him and, in a sense, against himself. He’s mild-mannered, low-key and definitely not built for conflict, yet it always seems to find him. And his experiences as a youngster have created a deep seated anger that spills over in his fights. His face contorts with rage as he delivers every blow: they’re not really aimed at his opponent, but at those bullies all those years ago.
Director David Leon knows how to choose a cast and get the best out of them, especially Graham. He gives a performance where the gloves are off, one that’s right in your face and full of nuance and complexity. You sympathise with Ben, you even like him but you also shake your head in despair and want to shout “wake up!” at him. Because his big failing is his loyalty to Shannon. It takes what seems like an eternity for him to realise that the man really isn’t his friend, and even then he has no idea of everything he’s done. The scenes between Graham and Smiley work perfectly throughout, when they’re friends and when they’re not. At the outset, even we are taken in by the plausible Irishman. It doesn’t last long. The supporting performances are strong as well, with Rebecca Callard particularly good as the wife who loves her husband deeply, despite everything life throws at them.
The film as a whole, however, is on shakier ground. It’s based on the short of the same name from 2012, directed by Leon and also featuring Graham and Smiley in the same roles. The story’s foundations remain the same, but this time it’s been stretched so much that it comes close to breaking point and its credibility heads in the same direction. The editing isn’t just abrupt, it looks clumsy. Ending a sequence with a blank screen is acceptable enough, but punctuating scenes in the same way makes the whole proceedings feel disjointed. And the attempt early on at a metaphor featuring greyhounds simply doesn’t make any sense: the film could easily do without it.
If the film lived up to its cast, ORTHODOX would be a knock-out – pun intended. As it is, it relies too heavily on them: without them it would have come just a bit too close to being on the ropes.
ORTHODOX is released on DVD Monday 16 May 2016.
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