Orthodox is a slow-burning British drama that never truly catches fire. It’s a pity that the story crafted by writer and director David Leon for his first feature, which certainly had the potential to be incendiary, has been transferred to a flimsy script that is further compounded by indecisive stabs at direction, leaving the whole project in a murky, stodgy mire that doesn’t go anywhere. Stephen Graham, again proving his worth on the big screen after four stellar years as Al Capone in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, is the only real saving grace of an otherwise forgettable film.
A likeable rogue whose charisma can quickly give way to a blistering, animalistic terror, Graham plays Benjamin, a loving father and husband in a close-knit Jewish community. The Levy family butchers is going down the pan and the boys need new school clothes so Ben puts his vicious bare-knuckle skills to good use to earn cash fighting gypsies. On the other side of the ropes from Snatch, Graham’s brute ferocity is the antitheses of One Punch Mickey but the money earned isn’t enough. Calling upon his shady old pal, Shannon (Michael Smiley, who many will know as computer bod Benny alongside Idris Elba in Luther), Benjamin agrees to torch a house owned by Goldberg (Christopher Fairbank), the patriarchal head of the community who has his fingers in a number of disreputable pies. Dire consequences, betrayal, loss and ostracisation follow causing Ben to seek penance and forgiveness.
Now working in Shannon’s boxing gym – so often the venue for redemption and rebirth in film – Ben comes across a young homeless Jewish boy named Daniel (Giacomo Mancini) who he mentors and tries to protect from making the same mistakes he did. Given its thematic emphasis on tradition, religion, community and family, there is enormous room for conflict which never materialises. From a fatalistic opening monologue by Graham filled with platitudes, the big ideas and intimacy of a small ensemble just don’t coincide. Although no specific sense of place is made, Orthodox was shot in Leon’s hometown of Newcastle, at its most bleak throughout. The aesthetic created effectively displays the desired gloomy mood and even interiors are reduced to dark greys, blues and blacks.
It’s unfortunate that so many other narrative elements are left similarly subdued. Smiley’s verbal and physical aggression could have been several notches higher; it feels like the handbrake has been left on, preventing a truly villainous turn. His religious compass, as a Northern Irishman, is another area left unexplored. The image of a caged greyhound recurs throughout, aligned with Benjamin’s inner turmoil and coiled rage. Despite his best efforts, and never quite let off the leash, Graham cannot drag this drama up from off the canvas. Although the actions of the religious men it depicts are anything from ordinary, Orthodox largely conforms to the accepted practices that its title espouses.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens