Despite its visible presence in London life, the capital’s Jewish community has never, if at all, been used as the setting for British films, which makes it a very different case from their American equivalent, especially in New York. There was Suzie Gold (Dir: Richard Cantor) last year, but this flaccid comedy didn’t feel like the real thing. Therefore, the bitter-sweet comedy Paradise Grove, directed by Charles Harris, stands almost on a class of its own.
The film’s off-beat, philosophically inclined story is set in a retirement home in north London called Paradise Grove where Keith Perry (Leyland O’Brien), a half-Jewish, half-black teenager, works for his mother. Keith is also the narrator and his voice-over works as the consciousness of the film. His mother is the power-suited, shoulder-padded Dee (Rula Lenska), who can’t accept the fact that her son has no ambitions and is happy to be looking after a bunch of old people. Besides, he doesn’t go out and sleep around. She even tells him that if he’s gay, he should get a boyfriend. Dee sleeps with the home’s doctor, Dr Norman (John Cunningham). Among the old people is Keith’s grandfather, Izzie Goldberg (played by Ron Moody), a man on his last legs who is constantly nagging his grandson (‘a schwatzer’) and behaving like a brat in revolt against imminent death.
This being a retirement home, the film has a good share of extras to provide small narrative distractions and punctuations, like the old lady who’s always going in the wrong direction. At times, it does feel Harris tried to squeeze every possible reference to Jewish psychology into the film, although that doesn’t give the film any kind of cultural insularity as the jokes tend to be quite universal and, at times, dark.
Keith’s life changes when a young, jittery girl called Lee (Kim Wright) asks for a job at the home, despite having no qualifications. She says she’s running from her father and Keith gives her the job. Lee and Izzie provide the two main sub-plots to what is a big broad picture of a micro-universe where a young man is in a process of self-discovery. Keith is played with great panache and seeming ease by O’Brien. He is refreshingly non-ambitious, gentle and patient, the anti-thesis of the stereotype of the neurotic Jew. All he craves is his grandfather’s acceptance and he even studies Hebrew in the evening.
Paradise Grove sometimes lacks bite, Ron Moody quite often overacts and doesn’t really look like someone who is dying. Besides, Lee’s killer father sub-plot is completely unconvincing. But Harris did a good job in capturing the atmosphere of a retirement home, its daily routine and presenting a multi-layered naturalistic view of such place. You sometimes can almost smell it. Harris also has a good ear for dialogue, some of which lingers in the memory. Who knows Paradise Grove may become the genesis of a new British film genre.