I’ve been feeling the need to shake things up a bit on this blog for a while, as writing about films using the same format can become a little tedious and repetitive from time to time, especially when you’re writing five or so posts a week. For this review of David Leon’s new British indie Orthodox I’ve decided to try something new, and have randomly selected five frames from different minutes of the film, which were chosen using a random number generator. (I can’t claim this idea as my own…it’s pilfered from Dan North’s excellent blog Spectacular Attractions, and you can see his posts here.) I’ll try and write a little about each frame, and I’ll keep them in the order they appear within the film itself. The frames I’ve chosen are from minutes 13, 38, 48, 60 and 75.
Orthodox is a gritty drama about a Jewish man who loses his family and his status within the community after he is sent to prison for arson. It’s Leon’s first feature film, though he has directed a few short films, including a truncated version of this story, which was made in 2012. If you’re in the UK and Orthodox isn’t showing at a cinema near you, it is currently available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.
Frame 1: minute 13.
Stephen Graham, seen on the left here, plays Ben, a Jewish butcher and amateur bare-knuckle boxer, whose love of fighting has seen him ostracised from the local Jewish community (the location is unspecified; Graham’s accent would suggest it’s supposed to be somewhere in the south-east of England, but the production was actually based in the north-east). Through flashbacks we learn that Ben started to box as a child because he was bullied. In his adult life he is struggling to make ends meet and to provide for his family. His butcher’s shop has a distinct lack of produce and customers, so to make some money on the side he takes part in underground boxing matches, and is managed by petty criminal, landlord and boxing gymnasium-owner Shannon (Michael Smiley), who also pays Ben to collect debts on his behalf. Both Shannon and Graham appeared as the same characters in Leon’s 2012 short.
Graham is well-known for playing tough nuts – his monstrous Al Capone stands out in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and he made his name with a string of fine performances as racist skinhead Combo in Shane Meadows’ This Is England series. He’s very good at playing aggressive guys, but he’s also adept at making you feel sympathy for his characters despite their actions (less so Capone, but that’s certainly true here and with regard to Combo). He’s well cast: Ben makes a series of poor choices that land him in prison, but when he’s back on the outside we want things to work out for him, as ultimately he’s portrayed as an honest, hardworking man who loves his family.
Also in the frame is Rebecca Callard, who plays Ben’s ‘shikse’ wife Alice. In this scene they dance and kiss in the kitchen of their house, and it’s one of the few upbeat moments in an otherwise downbeat film (all of the more positive scenes, which feature Ben, Alice and their two children, arrive within the first twenty minutes). Callard, whose mother Beverley is familiar to soap opera fans in the UK, has worked steadily in TV for many years, but this branching out into feature films is welcome; she’s good here in a small supporting role. Unfortunately when Ben goes to prison an unpleasant fate awaits her, and she is written out of Leon’s film, which is a real shame. It’s all men from then on, and that never ends well.
Frame 2: minute 38.
Naturally when Ben gets out of prison his first move is to seek out Shannon, who employs him at his old boxing gym. Michael Smiley has made the most of supporting roles in a number of very good films during the past few years, including Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster and Gerard Barrett’s Glassland, and he’s on pretty good form here as a manipulative Fagin figure, though perhaps if anything he’s a little too dastardly. Ben’s stint in prison has led Shannon to look elsewhere for a dogsbody to carry out his dirty work, and he’s chosen another vulnerable Jewish boy, Daniel (Giacomo Mancini), seen on the left here. Ben instantly recognises Daniel as a kindred spirit, and the story then becomes about their relationship and the way they are both treated and manipulated by Shannon. I chose this frame in particular as the vest and the jacket on display reflect the film’s colour palette – which relies to a certain degree on blues and faded yellows. Both colours pop up regularly – clothes, soft furnishings, etc – and the yellows in particular help to give the film a faded, dreary look.
Frame 3: minute 49.
Here the local community leader Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank) is visiting Ben to check up on him and to discuss the future for Ben and his family. Goldberg is a strange figure: part society patriarch, part cold-hearted businessman, he owns many of the properties that the crooked Shannon manages, and the pair have a similar relationship to that between Shannon and Daniel, with the older man passing on the dirtier side of the business to his underling. In the scene just before this one Ben and Daniel talk over dinner in the same location. The framing here mimics the framing from the previous scene: in each case the experienced, older father figure is placed on the right-hand-side and the conversation is shot side-on. The younger man is respectful and listens, and it forces us to compare the characters of Ben and Daniel once more. In both of these scenes it’s interesting to note Ben’s furnishings; they look cheap, and old (judging by people’s clothes the film is set in the present day but Ben’s TV looks like it has been around since the 1980s). We know that Ben doesn’t have a lot of money, and presumably won’t be making much working at Shannon’s gym, but there’s also a suggestion that he’s unwilling to move on after his release from prison, and has no interest in setting up a truly-comfortable home (though there are speakers, and a comfy-looking chair, I guess). It makes for a stark contrast with the well-furnished house that Ben lived in with his family, seen earlier in the film.
Frame 4: minute 60.
This is in Shannon’s office, inside the gym. Note the yellows and blues in this frames again. The scene in question starts off quite amusingly: Shannon is alone, watching a daytime quiz show, and he’s losing his rag with a contestent who has been asked to identify Manchester United’s most-capped footballer. His exasperation, plus the fact that his own answer was incorrect, leads Shannon to mutter the word ‘cunt’ under his breath, though just as he does so there’s a cut to a shot of Ben walking past the window along the corridor outside of the office. Is it directed towards Ben, or the TV? Shannon greets his employee warmly enough, but we know by now that he’s a complete weasel, and there’s no substance to his friendliness. By this point Ben has had enough of him, and has come to realise that Shannon is partly responsible for his situation and his stint in prison (though Ben is not without fault himself, of course). His body language speaks volumes here: Ben’s arms are folded and he clearly doesn’t want to have anything more to do with Shannon.
Frame 5: minute 72
Here we see Goldberg in a cemetery. The headstone provides plot information that I probably shouldn’t give away, but I like the shot and the way the older man blends into the surroundings; it reminds us of his age, and that time is running out for him, but also the graves foreshadow what happens next during the film’s final act. You can also see some typically overcast British weather: this is one of those gritty dramas where it’s always cloudy (or late at night), and we barely get a glimpse of sunlight (see also Catch Me Daddy). The shot is part of an impressive sequence that flicks between Goldberg and Ben, who is in Goldberg’s office; Goldberg has left an envelope for Ben on his desk that gives him important information, and the nature of their relationship becomes clearer at this point. From here on in the film moves toward its denouement, which partly recalls the plot of Iñárritu’s Biutiful, and Orthodox the Spanish film’s sense of hopelessness.
It’s a promising debut for Leon, in which Graham delivers a typically-strong performance and Smiley also impresses. If anything you wonder whether it’s able to stand out among the crowded market of gritty British independent dramas, but the focus on the Jewish community isn’t particularly common, I guess, and the acting is certainly good enough.
Directed by: David Leon.
Written by: David Leon.
Starring: Stephen Graham, Michael Smiley, Giacomo Mancini, Christopher Fairbank, Rebecca Callard.
Cinematography: Si Bell.
Editing: Kelvin Hutchings.
Music: Simon Robbs.
Running Time: 98 minutes.