Hester Street (1975)
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Starring: Steven Keats, Carol Kane, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh & Doris Roberts
Released by: Kino Lorber
Reviewed by Mike Kenny
Set in 1896 on the Lower East Side of New York City, Hester Street focuses on Yankl (Steven Keats, Death Wish), a Russian Jewish immigrant, who has adapted the name Jake and grown accustomed to the American culture. Working for $12 a week and engaged in an affair with a dancer (Dorrie Kavanaugh, Ryan’s Choice), Jake’s wife, Gitl (Carol Kane, Annie Hall), and their young son finally arrive in America to start their new life. Unfortunately, when Gitl has difficulty adapting to her new environment, tensions arise in their marriage. Mel Howard (The Washington Affair) and Doris Robert (Everybody Loves Raymond) co-star.
Based on the novella by Abraham Cahan, Hester Street is a moving and accurate depiction of immigrant struggles at the turn of the century. Chasing the American dream of a free world, Yankl (Keats) works tirelessly to raise the necessary funds to have his wife and son join him. Three years into his stay, Yankl, now known as Jake, has fully adapted to the American culture, prompting him to shave off his beard and enter into a new relationship with Mamie (Kavanaugh). After Jake’s wife, Gitl (Kane), and their son, Yossele, arrive on Ellis Island, Jake is confronted with his traditional Jewish past that he has long since repressed. Although, overjoyed with their presence, Jake quickly grows bitter and abusive with Gitl for her unwillingness to adapt to the American culture he loves so much. Nominated for an Academy Award, Carol Kane delivers a quiet, hauntingly memorable performance as a culture-shocked Jewish immigrant with her sorrowful eyes and desperation to retain her traditional identity. In addition, Steven Keats equally shines in his role as the very flawed and relatable Jake. Working hard while, ditching his roots for capitalist pursuits and the company of other women, Jake is constantly at odds with his uncooperative loved ones and his need for acceptance and wealth in The New World. While, broken English, thick accents and occasional Yiddish encompass the film, the performances are only heightened by the detailed, at times difficult, speech patterns. With their differences shifting them farther apart, Hester Street is a heartbreaking account of Jewish immigration and the uncertain future awaiting in a land that held such promise for all.
Shot for under a million dollars, Hester Street wonderfully captures the trials and tribulations of all immigrants hoping to carve out a better life for themselves. With its black and white photography, minimalist set decoration and screen accurate wardrobe, Hester Street feels almost documentary-like in its natural ability to capture its 1890s time period. Released during a time when female filmmakers were largely uncommon and inspired by her own Russian Jewish lineage, Director Joan Micklin Silver (Chilly Scenes of Winter) pours her heart into every frame, rewarding viewers with a one of a kind experience that was originally hailed as an “ethnic oddity”. Selected in 2011 for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress, Hester Street is an absorbing and culturally important film that masterfully captures the heartache of immigration and the fruitless attempts for wealth.
Kino Lorber presents Hester Street with a 1080p transfer, sporting a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. With scratches and debris present throughout, Hester Street still satisfies with reasonable black levels and adequate detail in close-ups. While, some sequences demonstrate slightly overblown whites, the transfer feels fitting and nicely compliments the film’s period setting, warts and all. Equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, Hester Street suffers from a mild hiss throughout its runtime prompting increases in volume while, dialogue is relayed efficiently enough allowing viewers to capture the thicker accents with little difficulty. Unfortunately, no special features are included on this release.
Equally dismal and hopeful, Hester Street engages the viewer with its character study of immigrants yearning to accept a new home while, struggling to give up the old country. Well regarded for its exceptional performances from Kane and Keats, Director Joan Micklin Silver’s feature film debut is handled with such passion and attention to human emotion, its value to film history is no surprise 40 years later. Making its Blu-ray debut, Kino Lorber’s transfer shows signs of some wear and other anomalies but, makes great strides delivering a presentation to be satisfied with. Containing a strong, universal message, Hester Street is a remarkable effort worthy of recommendation.
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