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'Unorthodox'  review: An achievement of searing power and grace

Shira Haas as Esther Shapiro in Netfllix's TV

Shira Haas as Esther Shapiro in Netfllix's TV miniseries "Unorthodox" (2020). Credit: Netflix/Anika Molnar

MINISERIES "Unorthodox"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Esty (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Hasidic woman, flees her Williamsburg, Brooklyn, community and her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav) for Berlin in search of a life of her own in "Unorthodox," a Netflix miniseries adaptation of the Deborah Feldman memoir "Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots."

She's an aspiring pianist who falls in with a circle of music conservatory students, but her journey of self-discovery is threatened as Yanky and his cousin Moishe (Jeff Wilbusch) are sent by their rabbi to bring her home. 

MY SAY "Unorthodox" is an achievement of searing power and grace, attuned to big, sweeping emotions and small, observational moments in equal measure. 

Director Maria Schrader and writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski tell Esty's story with an eye for the catharsis in her quest for freedom as well as the terror and the uncertainty. Over the course of four episodes, they weave together the story of Esty and Yanky's marriage — revealing the profound personal and communal expectations facing Esty — with her precarious arrival in Berlin and the steps she takes there to find a different path.

In Brooklyn, there are demands that Esty conform to the only acceptable conception of how a wife must live with her husband. There are pressures surrounding getting pregnant, including the invasive meddling of her mother-in-law, and anger that erupts around her piano lessons with a non-Jewish instructor. She transforms from an eager newlywed, seen overcome with emotion at her wedding, to a woman desperate for an elusive freedom.

In Berlin, Esty must learn to use a computer, learn a living,  relate to a diverse group of people from backgrounds far different than her own and to reconsider her understanding of her own mother, who left the Hasidic community when Esty was a baby and now also lives in the German capital.

The great wisdom in the way this story is told lies in its innate understanding that there are no clear lines demarcating right and wrong here, no simplistic and easy way to separate the good and the bad.

Leaving her world behind comes with great pain and suffering for Esty — in one of the miniseries' most heartbreaking moments, Esty's beloved grandmother hangs up on her when she calls from a Berlin payphone. Yanky is a sensitive, kind man who does not know what to make of a wife who informs him that she's "different" the very first time they meet.

But this work lives and breathes as vividly as it does thanks to its star, Shira Haas, and her possession of that most elusive acting gift: conveying these complex and conflicting experiences in silence. Through a glance, or a gesture, or a swell of emotions seen in her eyes, we see that her Esty is proud and scared, self-assured and filled with doubt, but always defiantly and powerfully herself.

BOTTOM LINE This is one of the major achievements in the history of Netflix original productions. You cannot miss it.

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