Here’s an interesting idea for a film: an Orthodox Jewish boy is shunned from his community because he wants to take up boxing. As an adult, having failed to make it professionally, he works at a kosher butcher shop, but participates in illegal bare-knuckle fights to make ends meet.
This is a film I would be interested in seeing, and this is ostensibly what Orthodox is about. Unfortunately, it gets mired in a series of murky and unmotivated gangster plots that sadly derail the entire enterprise.
Orthodox is written and directed by David Leon – who adapts from his own short film – and stars the always wonderful Stephen Graham as Benjamin, the afore mentioned butcher who boxes. His fight promoter Shannon (Michael Smiley) takes advantage of Ben’s outcast status and money troubles to make him do jobs for him. A bit of money collecting here, a bit of arson there. The latter landing Ben a 4-year stretch in the nick.
This is where it all goes wrong for the film. Shannon it turns out, is the enforcer for the local crime boss, Mr Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank) who just happens to be the rabbi leader of the community from which Ben has been exiled. They are both responsible for Ben’s predicament, and after ruining his life, they set about making it even worse for him. To call this film bleak is an understatement.
Not only is it desperately miserable, but also it is also bizarrely constructed. There are confusing sequences of cross-cutting and scenes flashing back and forth. Dialogue we’ve already heard is then replayed as voice over on top of completely static scenes – hammering home what the character is thinking and what we should be feeling. Hugely significant events also happen off screen, whilst other significant events are set up and then never paid off.
It just doesn’t quite get under the skin of any of its subjects. There are a lot of interesting strands, but none of them go beyond the surface. At the end of the film we know nothing more about the characters than we did at the beginning. The motivations are unclear for all of them, and in the central pivotal role, we have an almost entirely passive character. Ben is nothing more than a pawn between Shannon and Goldberg. In the hands of another actor, this would not have worked at all. Thankfully in Stephen Graham, the film has a superb leading actor, capable of expressing so much with so little.
Ultimately, Orthodox can’t quite decide if it wants to be a thoughtful study of faith, Judaism, and the strength of community, or a boring British gangster film. Which is a real shame, because the film about the Jewish butcher who earns money on the side by fighting gypsies is interesting. The rest of it, not so much.
Proof, if you needed it, that not all good short films make decent features.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus