Friday, 26 August 2016

Orthodox (2014)


Orthodox is a bleak and gloomy production from writer/director David Leon that expands upon his 2008 short of the same name. It stars Stephen Graham as Benjamin a Orthodox Jewish man whose decisions in life has seen him semi-cast out on the periphery of the London Jewish community he was born into. 

Bullied as a child, Benjamin developed a skill and passion for boxing which was subsequently frowned upon by his traditional family and society. Taken under the wing of his Irish friend Shannon (Michael Smiley) who is at the end of a very long leash held by the omnipotent Orthodox businessman and community leader Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank) Benjamin begins to make some much-needed money indulging in grubby illegal bare-knuckle fist fights, managed by Shannon, and much to the disappointment of his non-Jew wife Alice (Rebecca Callard) who is another reason he has been cast out from the Orthodox community. 

When Goldberg instructs Shannon to burn down one of his slum properties, Shannon delegates the job to the cash-strapped Benjamin and sets him up as a fall guy resulting in Benjamin being sent to prison for four years and losing everything.


His misplaced trust in Shannon continues upon his release, leaving him in a very vulnerable position as he tries to reaffirm his identity and find his place in a world that continues to fail and betray him, as well as him attempting to protect a new, Jewish teenage protege of Shannon's.

Without question Orthodox is an atmospheric and good looking feature that raises it far above the usual glut of low budget British straight-to-DVD criminal thuggery and into what seems to be a growing fashion for stylish but minimal and flawed slow-burning examples of the genre. But it is flawed; David Leon takes a strange approach to his story, with events being skipped over in an instant, leading to some very significant plot points being delivered in conversations so throwaway and casual that you can be forgiven for missing them. It is really disconcerting and serves to keep you at arm's length from Benjamin's plight. What makes this choice all the weirder is that Leon spends great swathes of the film playing with soulful metaphorical interludes involving caged greyhounds - it does make one question where his priorities lay.


Anyone looking for a film specifically about the world of bare-knuckle fighting will be greatly disappointed by this too. Whilst boxing - in all its forms, both legit and significantly less so - appears as something of a saviour for Ben, the theme of it is largely underdeveloped as the film progresses to concentrate on the circles of deceit and the abuse of trust Benjamin is subjected to both in his old community and the new as represented by Shannon, which are of course more closely linked than he perhaps first thought. However, there's something satisfying in the way Leon subverts the nominal sports/boxing drama and this is never more clear than in his cuts from the brutal, animalistic and ugly world of fighting to the cosy portrayal of a devoted and loving family that the bruised Benjamin returns home to between bouts.


At its heart, the ace up Orthodox's sleeve is the fresh setting on offer from the Jewish orthodox community and how it rubs shoulders with these more familiar tropes and the topical subject of how anonymous immigrants are routinely exploited in a chain of command that rises up from the sly, scummy Shannon to the hands-off respectability of Goldberg. The other positive in the film is of course its cast; Stephen Graham is the glue that keeps it all together delivering another impeccable performance that is convincing both as a fighter and as a family man, whilst Michael Smiley and Christopher Fairbank feel like vultures circling around him, manipulating and betraying to one extent or another and reminding us all that we should choose our friends wisely.


Ultimately though, Orthodox is just too disparate and too obtuse to be truly memorable or enjoyable.

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