DOUGH – Review
DOUGH is a warm-hearted little British dramedy starring Jonathan Pryce (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) as an old Orthodox Jewish baker who is struggling to keep his family’s bakery going, in a tough East End London neighborhood. When his assistant quits, Nat agrees to hire the teen-aged son of the bakery’s African immigrant cleaning lady, not realizing his new assistant is a Muslim.
While this is not a film for serious cinephiles, it has found an audience on the film festival circuit and is now making the leap to wider distribution. The gentle little cross-cultural comedic drama draws its appeal more from its likable characters and their believable relationships rather than its overly familiar plot or comedy, some of which is summed up in the film’s tagline “Dough: It’s not the only thing getting baked.” The charm of this crowd-pleaser is not the contrived humor or stiff subplots that motivate the characters but those surprisingly well-drawn characters, fine acting (by Pryce in particular), its gentle exploration of religious and cultural differences, and its underlying message about friendship and tolerance.
Widower Nat Dayan (Pryce) is worn down from trying to keep the Kosher bakery he inherited from his father afloat. The bakery is in a neighborhood people often describe as “changing” but really, this one has already changed. Customers from the once mostly-Jewish neighborhood have moved away, and business is dwindling. Still, Nat can’t let go of the family tradition, going in early in the morning to make the bread and cleaning up litter in front of his tidy, modest shop.
Still bitter that his son Stephen (Daniel Caltigirone), a successful lawyer, chose not to continue in the business the family had run for over 100 years, Nat still cannot just let it go. When his apprentice baker leaves for another job, Nat is forced to quickly find a replacement. His hard-working cleaning lady Safa (Natasha Gordon) brings her son Ayyash (Jerome Holder) in to apply for the job. They immigrated from Darfur without Ayyash’s father, and she worries about the teen growing up without his guidance. Desperate, Nat hires they boy, even though he will have to teach him everything. Ayyash wants work but is leering of working for a Jewish baker, harboring misconceptions. In fact, the teen is selling marijuana – and continues to do so while working at the bakery. Predictably, some pot accidentally gets in the dough and, suddenly, the bread is flying off the shelves.
DOUGH has been playing film festivals, particularly Jewish ones, to sell-out crowds and building strong word-of-mouth. To be clear, this is no high-brow, art house cinema film (something its director John Goldschmidt acknowledged in a recent interview with this writer). It also is not a typical Hollywood film. In fact, it is the kind of film Hollywood no longer makes, and as such, it fill a niche for a certain audience, with its simple, human story.
The film pairs Pryce, a well-respected British stage and screen actor, with newcomer Jerome Holder. Pryce is marvelous, and the characters form a convincing father-son relationship, something they both need. The relationship is warm and even often funny, as they two play off each other beautifully, and explores how getting to know a person can change hearts and minds. Nat discovers his new assistant is Muslim early on his first day, when the baker comes out from the back room (where he has been praying) and finds the boy praying too. Nat is surprised, even unsettled – it never occurred to him the African family was Muslim – but quickly his thoughts shift to business, saying “Well, do that in the back – customers might see you.” It is a gentle kind of humor, and the film is often at its best when it taps into that cross-cultural theme, showing similarities between Muslim and Jewish traditions, such as hand-washing and praying at the beginning of the day, as the two get to know each other. Word gets out about the Muslim assistant, and both Nat and Ayyash have to confront some racism and religious intolerance.
Pryce, who is not Jewish, really does looks the part of the old baker in his full beard, and his strong performance really holds the film together. Holder works well with him, and has plenty of youthful appeal as a teen still finding his place in the world. Additional human relationships and characters sweeten the mix, with adorable Melanie Freeman as Nat’s young granddaughter Olivia, Andy de la Tour as Nat’s longtime pal Saul, and Pauline Collins as wealthy widow Joanna Silverman, who has her eye on Nat. All the actors craft charming, believable characters and relationships.
The story is set in Ilford, an East London neighborhood that actually underwent the kind of changes depicted. The film set replicated exactly the interior an real London Kosher bakery, and Pryce learned bread-making at a famous London Jewish family bakery, Grodzinski’s. Consultants from Darfur and a rabbi were also on hand to ensure the film’s details were authentic.
The dramatic part is warm and charming but the same cannot be said for the comedy plot, which is sometimes staler than three-day-old-bread. Where the film’s characters are just talking, and even when they are tossing off a few zingers, the film is believable and even funny. When it goes off into contrived plot, it seems forced and awkward. Besides the standard “old folks getting stoned” humor, the overloaded plot also adds in a couple of one-note villains, a competitor wanting buy up the property (Philip Davis) and an sinister drug dealer (Ian Hart). The thing is, the characters and they way they interact, particularly the leads played by Pryce and Holder, actually feel very real and down-to-earth, when not weighed down by the too-familiar plot devices. One wishes the film had a better, more believable story for these appealing characters to inhabit.
Still, the film’s success on the festival circuit signals that it is striking a chord with those audiences willing to overlook its flaws for its genuine warmth. Credit for that goes to the actors, and a director, John Goldschmidt, for giving them the space to work. “Dough” is not a film for serious cinephiles but it is feeding a need for an audience hungry for this kind of warmhearted, hopeful story.
DOUGH opens on April 29th, 2016 at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac