Film Review: Dough

Charming comedy about an aging Jewish bakery owner and the African Muslim youngster he hires as his assistant in a downtrodden London neighborhood undergoing gentrification.
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Dough is a delightful, life-affirming British comedy despite its formulaic elements, with lots of culture/ethnic/religious/class conflicts thrown into the mix. There’s also the father-son theme. That’s a big one here.

The need to suspend disbelief is pervasive throughout, not least in scenes featuring staid old-timers, high as kites, as they unwittingly (and joyously) wolf down pot-laced challah. Put simply, it’s amazing what screenwriters Jonathan Benson and Jez Freedman and director John Goldschmidt get away with thanks to their good-humored affection for their protagonists (but not the villains, who are wonderfully villainous).

The always-brilliant Jonathan Pryce (Pirates of the Caribbean, “Game of Thrones”) plays Nat Dayan, an aging, widowed, observant Jew who runs a dilapidated bakery in a rugged London neighborhood undergoing gentrification. The bakery has been in his family for three generations.

Things are not going well for Nat. For starters, he’s losing business. There are fewer and fewer customers for his kosher breads, and when his long-term assistant quits, nabbing a job with the competition—the malign developer Cotton (Philip Davis) who is planning to buy up all the buildings on the block, including the tenement that houses Nat’s bakery—it’s a devastating blow.

Nat’s landlady, the recently widowed Joanna (Pauline Collins of Shirley Valentine fame), is seriously toying with selling the building and moving to Florida, though she also has her sights set on Nat and might reconsider the sale if Nat gave her a tumble. Nat has no interest in her at all, short of “seducing” her to keep her property. (Some very amusing encounters occur between the two, culminating in a hilarious Pilates class Joanna attends with Nat on hand attempting to do “ball” work while looking hip—and failing dismally at both.)

Nat gets neither sympathy nor support from his attorney son Stephen (Daniel Caltagirone), who thinks it’s time for Dad to pack it in and retire. Stephen’s lack of interest in the business is painful to Nat, who realizes it’s the end of the line for the Dayan Bakery, and the end of an era. The only family member who enjoys the bakery is Nat’s nine-year-old granddaughter.

But, determined to keep the business afloat, Nat puts a help-wanted sign in his bakery window hoping to replace his erstwhile assistant. It’s a disheartening experience for him as one unqualified comic loser after another applies for the gig, until Ayyash (Jerome Holder), an amiable Nigerian-born Muslim kid, surfaces. Nat is skeptical but reluctantly gives him a shot on a trial basis. Ayyash’s mother, Nat’s cleaning lady in the bakery, begs him to do so.

Ayyash and his mom are having a hard time, too. Recent immigrants and living in near-poverty, they are on their own, though Ayyash’s mother remains optimistic that her absentee husband—who may not even be alive in war-torn Nigeria—will join them in the near future. Ayyash has no expectation that his father will show up and has gotten involved with some local drug-selling thugs, whose sleazy criminal boss (Ian Hart) orders him to get a legit job as a cover.

Dayan’s Bakery is the perfect camouflage, and within short order Ayyash is selling pot from the behind the counter. Nat has no idea what’s happening, though he’s pleased with his growing customer base (including an unprecedented hipster crowd showing up) for what he believes is his kosher breads and cakes. But business really skyrockets when Ayyash accidentally drops a bag of marijuana into the dough and word spreads about the “treated” baked goods. Nat couldn’t feel more vindicated, surmising that Ayyash has unexpected culinary talents and seems committed to the business and to him, which is more than he can say for his own son.

Ayyash has become his surrogate son and the future looks rosy for both men until Cotton grows suspicious of Dayan’s booming business, purchases some of his breads (that are indeed selling like hot cakes), and sends them to a lab for testing, at which point Ayyash has no choice but to confess to Nat what he’s been doing.

Shocked and betrayed, Nat explodes and Ayyash responds in kind. There’s rage on both sides, each voicing their suppressed bigotries towards each other. Not to belabor the point, and here the film turns a tad serious (though the filmmakers handle it with delicacy and grace), but Nat and Ayyash’s friendship was uneasy from the outset, their own cultural prejudices inevitably lurking beneath the surface.

Still, there is common ground. They are religious men. Each spies the other in ritual morning prayer and their histories boast familiar themes too. Ayyash’s description of fleeing brutal warriors on horseback in Nigeria has resonance for Nat, whose slight shift in expression suggests perhaps he’s thinking about his own family’s experiences during pogroms in Eastern Europe as Cossacks notably rode through the shtetls on horseback. The two men are not in the same boat, but through the vagaries of historical fate they are forced to deal with the same predators (legal and illegal) spawned in the wake of an evolving economic landscape.

In the tradition of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and A Taste of Honey, the film is especially successful in evoking the bleak streets and the ongoing struggle to survive in depressed communities, though clearly in this instance it has a modern twist with 21st-century characters and an aesthetic that combines wild comedy with a darker slice of life. There are no laughs in an Alan Sillitoe or Shelagh Delaney screenplay. Their visions are downright dystopian.

But hope is implicit in Dough and the viewer knows the two underdogs will prevail as Nat and Ayyash, who have a shared stake in defeating the evil Cotton, join forces with new mutual understanding.

Chaos ensues and the film morphs into farce that’s not credible at all, but that’s okay too. It’s so totally benign it becomes just another step towards the happy resolution. Spoiler alert: In a final scene, Nat is about to take a brief vacation, temporarily leaving the bakery to Ayyash and symbolically his nine-year-old granddaughter, who is hanging around the store when Nat departs. The two are having a fine time, foreshadowing a kinder, gentler future. It’s oddly touching.

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