Hasidic Drama ‘Rough Diamonds’ Not As Engaging as ‘Shtisel,’ But Still Dazzles
by Alan Zeitlin
Comparing any show to “Shtisel” is unfair; it’s a mountain that won’t be topped.
But the new Netflix series “Rough Diamonds,” which is also about a Hasidic family and takes place in Belgium, where Nuchem and Libbi Shtisel are from, reaches bingeworthy heights.
The Wolfson family has a diamond business in Antwerp that used to be booming, but now there are big troubles. The patriarch is old, and the fate of the company is up to his three children.
Noah (Kevin Janssens) is no longer religious, is divorced from a gentile, has to take care of his young son, and is willing to get involved with unsavory characters, including the Albanian mafia. He’s romancing two women at the same time, which isn’t surprising given how handsome he is.
Janssens, who looks like a cross between a young David Duchovny and Liev Schreiber, drives the show and has star-power. Noah’s sister Adina (Ini Massez) is intelligent and scheming, and his brother Eli (Robbie Cleiren), thinks he can outsmart people and may be in way over his head.
The opening scene is jarring, as Noah’s brother, Yanki, steals a gun from a guard and does something unthinkable. It’s the rarest of shows that has a Hasidic character toting a firearm. The 2001 film “Snatch” has an opening scene in Antwerp where robbers dress up as Hasidim, hold yarmulke-wearing men at gunpoint and steal some precious jewels.
Created by Rotem Shamir, who has directed many episodes of “Fauda,” and Yuval Yefet, who was a writer on that show, there’s a lot to like in “Rough Diamonds.”
Gila (Marie Vinck) is drawn to Noah and they have physical chemistry and history, but she knows he is dangerous and unreliable. She goes on a date with a wealthy Hasidic man who has a good sense of humor, and she doesn’t know if he’d be a better match.
Noah’s mother-in-law Kierra is crafty, but pressures him to take risks he does not want to take, and after he makes agreements with violent people, his son, Tommy, is threatened.
Janssens, Vinck, and Tine Joustra all give performances that make you want to see what they will do next, and there are some good moments of tension. Massez gives a nuanced performance that provides texture to the series.
The show could have used more violence, and stronger dialogue at key points. The biggest flaw is that the cardboard villains don’t turn the temperature up enough, and the show doesn’t reach the potential of its premise.
But the scenes of prayers in a synagogue are done well, and there is an especially poignant moment of cinematography when Noah and Gila longingly look at each other as they dance is separate circles at a simcha (she dances with women and he dances with men) and wonder if they will hold each other again. There is a way for non-Jews to see the Jewish customs through the son, Carsen, who gets along splendidly with his Hasidic relatives.
We see the cliché of a police officer whose boss doesn’t want them to ruffle feathers, and a sub-plot with Antwerp police arguing with each other that is simply a waste of time. It’s a shame that when Noah finally has a fight scene, it’s too short. He oozes machismo, but also tries to be a good dad. Julia Akkermans is impressive as Marie, a woman who wants Noah and thinks the best way to get his heart is to play it casual.
The show’s characters speak in several languages, including Yiddish and English, but it’s money that really talks, in the form of getting diamonds. Flashbacks showing Noah breaking from religious observance or even recounting good times when he was religious would have given the show more complexity and allowed for Noah to have a stronger arc.
Will there be some turned off by the stereotype of Jews caring so much about money? Some may be, as they may have been with Adam Sandler’s “Uncut Gems,” in which Sandler played a secular diamond-store owner in Manhattan, in a role for which he should have won the Oscar. In “Shtisel,” Nuchem cares a lot about money, too.
“Rough Diamonds” gets stronger with each episode, and I watched all eight of them in one day.
I’d be shocked if there wasn’t a second season, because the writing and acting merit one, but there needs to be more tension and more fearsome baddies. It’s nice to see a tough Jewish character on screen.
The author is a writer based in New York.