Director: David Leon
Major Players: Stephen Graham, Michael Smiley, Christopher Fairbank
Out Of Five: 3
Did anybody declare this National Boxing Week? It seems like it on DVD, with the release of Creed, the big boxing movie of the year so far, and something much smaller. British production Orthodox. Although its approach to the sport is rather different to Ryan Coogler’s.
Bullied at school for being Jewish, Ben (Stephen Graham) learnt to box to defend himself. He carries on with the sport as an adult, but as a money maker: the family butcher’s doesn’t bring in enough to support his wife and family, so lifelong friend Shannon (Michael Smiley) gets him unofficial fights. It’s a friendship that eventually sends Ben to prison. On his return, his previous life has been destroyed and he has to choose between staying friends with Shannon and reconciling himself with his community and his own conscience.
Director David Leon uses boxing as the catalyst for the film. Admittedly, it’s a story where fighting plays a large part – against bullies, against anti-semitism, against the hand that life has dealt Ben and, in a sense, against himself. He’s not really built for conflict, but it always seems to find him. He’s mild-mannered by nature, low-key, but his experiences at the hands of the bullies made him angry and it spills over in the unofficial boxing bouts. His face contorts with rage and those punches aren’t for his opponent, they’re for the bullies.
He’s always been something of an outsider in his community, but his faith is still important in his life, whether he practices or not. We see him observing the tefillin, the orthodox style of prayer, and he almost constantly wears his kippah (skull cap). His wife, Alice (Rebecca Callard) took the demanding step of converting to Judaism so they could marry. But taking up boxing as a youngster alienated him from his parents and the community, he didn’t keep company with other Jewish boys, his wife feels everybody looks down on them because they don’t have much money and she’s regarded by older members of the community as a shiksa (the disparaging term for a gentile wife).
It’s a film that leans very heavily on its cast and, thankfully, it has the ever watchable Stephen Graham at its centre. There are very few scenes without him. He gives a performance where the gloves are, literally 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 feel like shouting “wake up!” at the screen. Because his loyalty to Shannon is nigh-on blind. It takes him far too long to realise that the man isn’t what he appears to be, and even then he has no idea of everything he’s done. The scenes between Graham and Smiley work perfectly and, at the outset, even we are taken in by the plausible Irishman. It doesn’t last long. The supporting performances are strong as well. Graham and Callard touchingly portray a couple who, despite all their problems, genuinely love each other. And Christopher Fairbank, hidden behind a long beard, is granite-like as the businessman who conceals a more compassionate side.
The film as a whole is on shakier ground. In the early scenes, there’s an attempt at a metaphor involving greyhounds – racing out of their traps, trying to escape from their cages – but it’s short lived and doesn’t really make sense. It returns late on, but makes even less sense and the film could really do without it. The editing is abrupt to the point of clumsy. Ending a scene with a moment of blank screen is acceptable, but punctuating them gives the film a disjointed feel, which also betrays its micro budget. Leon isn’t alone in making a movie on a shoestring, but there are plenty of them that don’t give the game away so obviously. Chicken for one, which is due in cinemas this Friday.
The other issue is that the film is based on a short from 2012 of the same name. And the story has been stretched almost to breaking point. There are moments where it descends into predictability and, if it wasn’t for the cast and your investment in their characters – Graham also played the same role in the original – you’d be thinking of giving up.
Leon does, however, know how to pick a cast and get the best out of them. If the rest of the film was up to their standard, this would be a knock-out – and the pun’s intentional. Thanks to them it’s not on the ropes, but it dances just a bit too close.
Orthodox is released on DVD on Monday, 16 May and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 19 May.