Reviews, Screen

Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’: a thrilling mini-series about discovering the shape of freedom

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Unorthodox on Netflix is: thrilling, surreal, fascinating, tense, tender, revelatory, exhilarating. Or, essentially, Wow!

Set in the present, based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir (fictionalised and dramatised), it begins within a Hasidim community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There a young woman, Esty (Shira Haas), who has never left the area in her entire 19 years, makes an escape during Shabbat … all the way to Berlin, where Esty discovers the shape of freedom in music-making youth.

The four episodes uncover why she is on the run; in counterpoint the Rebbe has dispatched her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav), a sensitive mommy’s boy, and his cousin, the worldly, cunning thug, Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) – to do whatever it takes to bring her back. 

Photography and production design are superb, costume design is exceptional, acting is excellent across the board. Script and pace are spot on. All so good.

The Williamsburg scenes among the Satmar Hasidim are riveting: the Yiddish speech, the rhythms, rituals and manners; the textures of clothing and furniture; the dynamics between men and women; the “modesty” required of the women.

“You will only have leverage when you have a baby, do you understand?” conveyed with a sympathy uncompromised by false sentiment. Photography and production design are superb, costume design is exceptional, acting is excellent across the board. Script and pace are spot on. All so good.

Memorable set pieces: the purification of the bride to be; the amazing wedding scene; the contrapuntal immersion scene at the beach in Berlin; two family dinners in Williamsburg; two confrontations; the audition.

Two lines of dialogue serve as dialectical symbols of the show. Esty, paraphrasing a rabbi: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”  … and this observation, said with grim knowledge: “There’s always a Moishe.”

There’s always a Moishe, yes, but there’s also always an Esty.

Unorthodox is screening now on Netflix.

3 responses to “Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox’: a thrilling mini-series about discovering the shape of freedom

  1. I have just watched it in one evening – brilliant honest and so lovely – the Yiddish. Some years ago in Brooklyn and around the Williamsburg – lots of Hasidim on the streets – reminding me of other old forms of German speaker communities – Hutterites (one of which I visited a score of years ago near Magrath in south-west Alberta – thinking Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale actually at the time), Amish and Mennonites – strange dress/apartness – something drab out beautifully in the opening scenes of the Peter Weir film “Witness” – if you recall the little boy – witness to a murder rushing from the toilet to seek protection within his Amish group but stumbling into the midst of a similarly clad group and speaking group of Lubavitcher/Hasidim… The other thing which so appealed to me in this story of escape from a suffocating community was that I felt at once aspects of my own remove and entry into “the world” from Seventh-day Adventism – over 50 years ago. My amazement – eating bacon as one of my first acts of rebellion! Beautiful review WH Chong – and yes – me, too ….Wow!

  2. something drab out beautifully ??? That pesky autocorrect gremlin yet again…

    …something drawn out beautifully (was my intent…)

  3. I watched the series in one night also. Loved it but. especially the Berlin segment, should have been shortened by 1/2 hour; then it would have been perfect. After watching it looked up that particular Brooklyn community on google and discovered that they derived from Hungarian Jews who were deeply traumatised by the holocaust years and set up their tight knit community in New York with the maintenance of their culture and strict religious ideology which, as the generations grew, only became more intrenched and inflexible. Having migrated to Australia from Europe as a displaced person in 1949, this reflected my upbringing to some degree. Most migrant groups live in a time warp from when they felt their country. Often their home countries become more progressive and customs change but the migrants in their adopted country stick to their old ways and become even more entrenched in their old lifestyle. This applies to all migrant groups as they have an idealised view of their home country and when they return after many years they can often be disappointed as it is different to what they have built up in their tight knit often inflexible community. A great insight into a community that I had little knowledge of, but at the same time was very relatable.

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