Hester Street Review

New York City, the 1890s. Gitl (Carol Kane) has emigrated to America to be with her husband Jake (Steven Keats). However, she is surprised to learn that he has given up the ways of the old country and insists on being an American. He also has a girlfriend that she didn't know about...

Based on a novella, “Yekl” by Abraham Cahan, and written and directed by Joan Micklin Silver, the independently-made Hester Street was a groundbreaking film. Women had directed films since the cinema began: the French Alice Guy had been a pioneer at the start of the twentieth century, and Lois Weber had been prominent – and controversial – during the silent era. In America there had been Dorothy Arzner in the 1930s and early 1940s, and Ida Lupino (primarily an actress) had directed independently in the 1950s. But by the mid 70s, the prospect of a woman in the director's chair of an American film was still highly unusual. Joan Micklin Silver had made a couple of shorts previously, but investors in Hester Street were resistant to her being in charge of a feature. The presence of her husband, Raphael Silver, as producer seems to have mollified them.

Hester Street is a quiet, low-key piece that – with minimal resources – conjures up a picture of the late nineteenth century in New York which seems quite authentic. Kenneth Van Sickle's black and white camerawork adds to the effect. If it has a flaw it's that the film is far more interested in Gitl than it is in Jake – not Steven Keats's fault as he gives a solid performance in the role. As Gitl does not appear for some twenty minutes, it's as if the film suddenly gains an access of energy when she arrives. Carol Kane is mostly known for ditsy comedic roles, so it's easy to forget that in the early 70s she showed herself quite capable of playing dramatic roles. She gives an unflashy performance as a young woman who is at first naïve but not lacking in an inner strength. She holds the film together, and earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts. Hester Street is a true feminist film: it states that the life of an “ordinary” woman is just as valuable and just as deserving of dramatic treatment as anyone else's.

Hester Street is a key film in the representation of the Jewish experience in American cinema – which, leaving out Holocaust-themed works, is hardly extensive at the best of times. With much of the dialogue in Yiddish (subtitled into English) and quite a few Jewish expressions in the English-language dialogue, the film doesn't make many concessions to non-Jews. But the film rewards the effort.

Over the next decade and a half, Joan Micklin Silver made three sharp comedy-dramas, all of which are deserving of DVD release - Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels) and Crossing Delancey - as well as some highly-regarded TV work. Since then, she's made two reputedly forgettable features, Loverboy and Stepkids and has worked exclusively for the small screen. But Hester Street in its unassuming way is an affecting film. Its rough edges can be excused by the low budget, but in the end it simply feels right, and that's the important thing.


This DVD of Hester Street encoded for Region 2 only. It is one of several American indies that Metrodome is putting out on DVD over the next couple of months. I had hoped this would be an auspicious start, but unfortunately it isn't.

The DVD transfer is 4:3. This is clearly open-matte, with an intended ratio of 1.85:1, and I'd suggest owners of widescreen televisions zoom the image to 16:9. However, the image seems to be the combination of a standards conversion from an NTSC source (its running time matches that of the cinema release and is possibly mastered from a cinema print. The result is very soft and prone to ghosting, as well as being excessively contrasty. The subtitles for the Yiddish dialogue are burned in and overlarge, as can be seen in the screengrab below. Unfortunately, the English dialogue has no subtitles available, so anyone who has problems with the strong accents and the Jewishisms mentioned above will have a hard time of it.

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was originally. The dialogue is clear enough, with the reservations above, though there is some background hiss.

There are no extras on this DVD, not even a trailer.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 22:38:46

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