'Retaliation' Review: Orlando Bloom powerfully tells story of a man broken by child abuse, robbed of his faith
Spoilers for ‘Retaliation’
In the 2015 Oscar-winning biographical drama ‘Spotlight’, an extremely overwhelmed Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff) tells the Boston Globe journalists, “See, it is important to understand that this is not just physical abuse. It’s spiritual abuse too. When a priest does this to you, he robs you of your faith.”
Saviano was talking about child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In a host of powerful scenes in the film, this one stands out. It spells out with immense clarity one of the consequences of this abuse that isn’t often spoken about.
Ludwig Shammasian and Paul Shammasian’s film ‘Retaliation’, which premiered at the 2017 Edinburgh International Film Festival as ‘Romans’, takes us through a similar painful journey. It tells the story of Malky or Malcolm (Orlando Bloom), a demolition worker in a working-class town in England. Malky may look like your normal guy-next-door, who likes to have a few pints of beer with his pals at his local pub after work, but he carries enormous pain inside him.
His cheery façade, however, begins to crumble, after he runs into someone at the pub. This man drags out ghosts from his past and Malky turns into this broken man, unable to process his feelings. He begins to lash out at people -- sometimes complete strangers, sometimes his on-again-off-again girlfriend Emma (Janet Montgomery), sometimes his best friend Jo (Alex Ferns), and even himself.
His violent behavior stems from child sexual abuse. Twenty-five years ago, when he was no older than 12, a pastor (played by James Smillie) had raped him. And his repression of this act of abuse has led him to lead a dysfunctional life full of stoicism, rage, overcompensatory masculinity, mistrust, and sexual confusion. In one scene of the film, we see Malky anally penetrating himself with a rod. But it’s not masturbatory. It’s abusive. He has turned into a sadomasochist.
It is ultimately with the help of another priest called Paul (Charlie Creed-Miles) that Malky finds the tools to cope with his emotions. He finds a way to relinquish himself of this burden he's been carrying (that was never his to carry) for 25 years. And it is with Paul’s help that he finally manages to move past this.
‘Retaliation’ does a beautiful job of telling Malky’s story with dignity and sensitivity. It exposes us to his vulnerabilities while not once casting a judging eye on him. But it also tells the story of those around him. If Bloom’s performance is extraordinary, it is only enhanced by those of Creed-Miles, Montgomery, and Ferns.
Where Creed-Miles becomes a sympathetic shoulder -- he too was a victim of child sexual abuse -- Montgomery becomes vital in illustrating how trauma from this kind of abuse can find unsuspecting victims in the people around the survivors. She makes us feel for her plight, of a person who doesn’t know how to deal with an emotionally-stunted man, without diminishing Malky’s. And Ferns does an excellent job of portraying compassion, vulnerability and understanding under the husk of a rough-cut hypermasculine man.
What strikes most in the film is its imagery. The story of Malky is juxtaposed with the demolition of a church -- the same church where Malky was abused. And it is at Malky’s hands that it faces the demolition. It makes for a beautiful allegory for the loss of Malky’s faith, for the spiritual abuse he faced alongside the physical one.
‘Retaliation’ is a powerful film, and one that deserves every kind of praise. It is unflinching in its harsh glare -- be it upon abusive clergymen, or upon the effects of child abuse, or upon those who don’t let victims speak -- in this case, Malky’s mother played by Anne Reid. One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is when Malky’s mother dies, and he finally gets the opportunity to vent his years of repressed anger. He shouts at her dead body. He screams his pain out.
‘Retaliation’ is undoubtedly a sensitive film. Yet, it should be viewed with caution. Even though it doesn’t recreate child sexual abuse on screen, it does a fair bit to illustrate how trauma can give way to self-harm. It’s a measured portrayal, but it can be triggering for viewers nonetheless.
‘Retaliation’ is available on-demand from July 24.