Jews play starring roles in British films


LONDON, Oct 25 (JTA) – The four Chasidic Jews pass through security with only a minor delay. They take an elevator to an upper floor.

They walk down a hallway. They enter a diamond merchant’s workshop.

They pull guns from under their coats and threaten to blow people’s heads off if they don t hand over a huge 84-carat diamond.

Welcome to “Snatch.”

The latest movie from British writer-director Guy Ritchie – known both for his film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and for being the father of Madonna’s newborn son, Rocco – “Snatch” is the story of the aftermath of that heist.

It’s filled with Jewish characters. Or is it? After the raid, the “Chasids” strip off their beards and coats to reveal that one of them is Benicio Del Toro, an actor in the mold of a young John Travolta who has played supporting roles in “The Usual Suspects” and “Basquiat.”

The hood he’s supposed to deliver the diamond to, “Doug the Head,” is described as “not being Jewish but pretending to be.”

Doug the Head’s American cousin, Avi, wears a black kipah and sprinkles his speech with Yiddish, but he s played by the Italian-American actor Dennis Farina.

Ritchie, whose comic gangster films put him firmly in the tradition of director Quentin Tarantino, best known for “Pulp Fiction,” and 1960s British caper comedies like “The Italian Job,” researched “Snatch” himself.

Joel Grunberger, a Jewish jeweler who works in London’s Hatton Garden diamond district, was called in to advise Ritchie about Jews and diamonds.

“Guy wanted authenticity,” Grunberger said. “I tried to infuse the Jewish characters with Yiddishisms and phrases that are used in the diamond industry,” he added.

“Jewishness is not a running theme of the film. It’s incidental, just a vehicle to move the film onwards,” Grunberger said.

“It’s not a haimishe version of what Jews are supposed to be like,” he concluded.

“Snatch” is not the only recent British film to feature Jewish characters.

“Solomon and Gaenor,” a sort of Welsh-Jewish “Romeo and Juliet,” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1999. And Sandra Goldbacher’s 1998 film “The Governess” tempted British actress Minnie Driver to return from L.A. to make her first movie in England in three years.

Unlike in American cinema, where Jewish characters have been ubiquitous for generations, British movies have traditionally not featured Jews.

“They’ve been invisible in British films,” said Helen Jacobus, a writer on arts and culture for the London-based Jewish Chronicle newspaper.

Judy Ironside, director of the Brighton Jewish Film Festival, said that recently there had been a clear increase in the number of Jewish characters in British films.

“It feels like there’s a much wider diversity of Jewish images than even five to 10 years ago” because British Jews are more confident today than their parents were, she said.

“The younger generation doesn t have the fear of being recognized” as Jews, she added. “They know their peers will be interested rather than suspicious or critical.” Ironside said the Holocaust generation of British Jews kept its head down.

But Paul Morrison, who directed “Solomon and Gaenor,” said Jews have been maintaining a low profile in England since well before World War II.

“The Jews were kicked out of Britain in 1292 and were readmitted by Cromwell” in the 17th century, “so there’s a sense that Jews are here by sufferance,” he said.

“Jews have to be ‘good Englishmen’ in public,” he said.

He agreed that the Holocaust had reinforced that feeling.

“There was a kind of ‘frozen’ quality to Jewish life after the war. Until recently, the only images” of Jews “on television were the Holocaust and Israel,” he said.

“That began to change about 10 years ago,” he explained. “Anglo-Jewry has become more confident.”

His own feature film debut, “Solomon and Gaenor,” harks back to a time when Jews were hardly confident about their place in Britain.

Set in 1911, a year that saw anti-Jewish riots across south Wales, the movie tells the story of a Jewish peddler’s love for a Welsh girl.

People who know him said they were not surprised that the documentary filmmaker had chosen such an overtly Jewish theme for his first feature.

“Paul has a very strong Jewish identity,” said writer Jacobus.

A non-Jewish actor plays the lead role in Morrison’s film, which has opened in New York and Los Angeles.

The reason, Morrison said, is simple: “I had to have an actor who spoke fluent Welsh.” Sandra Goldbacher, who directed “The Governess,” also cast a non-Jewish actor to play a Jewish lead role, that of Rosie da Silva, who disguises herself as a Christian to take a position as governess.

“I did want all the Jewish characters to be played by Jewish actors, and every single other one is,” she told the Jewish Chronicle when the film was released in 1998.

“But Minnie Driver was just so right for the part. There’s an intelligence about her acting. And she really does look Jewish, doesn’t she?” Goldbacher asked.

As Jacobus observed, it’s not unusual to see Jewish characters being played by non-Jews in American movies.

Just this summer, Sir Ian McKellen played the supervillain Magneto in “The X-Men” (whose director, Bryan Singer, is Jewish); as the movie’s wrenching opening scene makes clear, the character is a Holocaust survivor.

While it’s not yet common to have non-Jews play Jews in British movies, it could become more so if the trend toward more Jewish characters continues.

Morrison, for his part, has a Jewish-themed project in the pipeline. He’s optioned Jewish writer Linda Grant’s novel “When I Lived in Modern Times,” a prize-winning book about Palestine under the British Mandate.

Brighton Jewish Film Festival director Ironside, for her part, said that each year it s easier to find movies to include in her program.

The cause – or the effect – she said, is that Jews are “in.”

“It’s very streetwise and cool to be a Jew in the U.K. now,” she said.

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