Reel Review - Unorthodox (2020)
Directed by: Maria Schrader
Written by: Deborah Feldman, Daniel Hendler, Alexa Karolinski & Anna Winger with Translations by Eli Rosen
Starring: Shira Haas, Amit Rahav & Jeff Wilbusch with Aaron Altaras, Tamar Amit-Joseph, Ronit Asheri, Dina Doron, David Mandelbaum, Delia Mayer, Alex Reid, Eli Rosen, Gera Sandler & Safinaz Sattar
Produced by: Alexa Karolinski
Unorthodox is one of the best things to watch on Netflix right now and a serious contender come awards season.
Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas) flees her Ultra-Orthodox life in Williamsburg, New York and pursues a secular life and her freedom in Berlin. Unorthodox is a loose adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.
It would be easy to call Unorthodox a criticism of Jewish Orthodoxy—or organized religion and religious doctrine in general for that matter—or a message of female subjugation and empowerment. But, just as with Feldman’s autobiography, this miniseries finds the universal in the specific—a whole world in its tightly crafted, New York microcosm.
At its heart, Unorthodox is a timely tale about tribalism. Feldman, Karolinski and Winger present us with a community that is so consumed by its past that it cannot see its present, far less dream of a future. For these Hasidic Jews, all that there is, or will ever be, is their baggage and Williamsburg. Whatever sense of belonging they provide for some is defined by the alienation they exhibit for others. What binds them together, more than shared values and traditions, is fear and pain.
But what the show’s writers have done is not to single out the Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg for ridicule or derision. (In fact, the show creators went to great lengths to pay respect to this community. Check out Making Unorthodox after the show for an idea of the production that went into this miniseries.) You could swap out the details of this story to make it fit anyone’s narrative. The Hasidic community from which Esty ran away is a stand-in for any tribe in which one finds oneself confined and Esty herself is the embodiment of the human spirit, desperate to break free of it. Diversity is presented as the antidote to this particular kind of toxic tribalism and individuality—or, “finding your voice” as it is packaged in the series—as the image of health.
There’s no reason why anyone, be they a twelve-year-old boy to a ninety-year-old woman, can’t find at least one aspect of Esty’s story or character to relate to.
If none of the narrative constructs matter to you, Unorthodox is also just a beautiful show to look at. If cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler faced technical challenges, he pulled them off so perfectly that all you’re left with is the art he overcame them to create. Similarly, production designer Silke Fischer immerses us in Esty’s Williamsburg and Berlin so completely that this story could almost have been told through design alone.
Israeli actress Shira Haas is a real find and her performance is Emmy-worthy and then some. Even if Esty was less of a captivating character, Haas’ sheer charm and charisma would have carried her effortlessly into our hearts. Amit Rahav as Yakov Shapiro is also compelling to watch on the screen—even if he makes you want to slap some sense into his character. But Rahav’s non-judgemental portrayal of Yakov is a large part of what makes the tension in this series feel so very real.
Prior to Netflix and its upending of the film and television industry, the idea for a limited series like Unorthodox would likely have become a schtick low-budget Lifetime production about a young woman fleeing her repressive life in Williamsburg and falling in love with a German-speaking, lederhosen-wearing white knight… if it were even allowed to have been produced at all. And it certainly would not have been in Yiddish. Thank goodness for Netflix and its insistence on 21st century programming for 21st century audiences.
With a total runtime of just about 3.5 hours, I can understand why show producer Alexa Karolinski opted for a miniseries style presentation instead of a feature length film. Though, if audiences were willing to snooze through The Irishman, they would have been more than delighted to accompany Esty on her journey to freedom, however long it took for her to get there. It’s a true shame because, as a motion picture, Unorthodox would have been a serious contender to upset the Oscar order in just about every single category—particularly given the Academy’s reception of foreign language films such as Roma and Parasite. However, settling for a sleuth of inevitable nominations and likely wins at the Primetime Emmy Awards later this year is a more than half-decent consolation prize for this ambitious and audacious project.