Producers: Jasper Graham, James Harris, Mark Lane and Sheetal Vinod Talwar   Directors: Ludwig Shammasian and Paul Shammasian   Screenplay: Geoff Thompson   Cast: Orlando Bloom, Janet Montgomery, Charlie Creed-Miles, Anne Reid, Alex Ferns, James Smillie, India Fowler, Rory Nolan and Charlotte Powell   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: C+

Orlando Bloom’s searing performance is the primary reason to watch this slow, heavily symbolic drama about a man coming to terms, after many years, with the trauma he’s suffered as a result of being molested as a child.  The film, originally titled “Romans,” is by the fraternal directorial team of Ludwig and Paul Shammasian, an expanded version of the 2007 short “Romans 12:20” they made with writer Geoff Thompson.   (The reference is to Paul’s Epistle and its injunction to leave vengeance to God and give help to one’s enemy, alluding to Proverbs 25: 21: “By this you heap red-hot coals on his head.”)

Bloom plays Malcolm, nicknamed Malky, who’s served time in prison for assault and now works as a laborer in the demolition of an abandoned Catholic church.  He’s a man seething with suppressed rage, capable of abusing himself, presumably as a means of expiating what he sees as his own guilt, and volatile in his relations with others, even his girlfriend, a barmaid named Emma (Janet Montgomery), and his best friend Joe (Alex Ferns), who in one of his extended monologues explains that Malky took the rap for him, serving the prison term he should have.  He also goes on about the rough-and-ready life Malky’s led.

It hardly helps that Malky still lives at home with his mother (Anne Reid), a critical sort who claims that she wants to do for herself but in fact depends on her son for most everything.  She’s also a churchgoer, quietly refusing to condemn—or even recognize—what was done to him as boy by a priest, in the very building he is now tearing down, carefully removing the crucifix over the altar and carrying it outside in a gesture that calls to mind Christ’s walk to execution.  That’s hardly the only example of symbolism in the film—indeed, it’s rather heavy-handed in that respect, especially at the very close.

His traumatic experience is suddenly brought back to Malky in one of his frequent visits to a local pub, where he spies the priest who abused him (James Smillie) having a pint.  The man is now pastor at the new church that Malky’s mother attends—he goes nearly berserk when he sees her conferring with the cleric one afternoon—and it appears that he’s determined to deal with his tormentor physically, despite the admonitions of another Paul (Charlie Creed-Miles), an ex-con who became a prison convert and now preaches in the streets), to rethink what he’s planning.

Malky does ultimately confront the priest, as one might expect in the confessional, and you expect that the session will end in violence.  But Paul’s admonition in Romans—which both men take to heart, the priest actually using it as the basis of a sermon—intervenes.  It gives Malky a measure of peace after his years of emotional turmoil, but proves a double-edged sword as far as his abuser is concerned. 

After years in empty pretty-boy roles, Bloom is reasserting his acting credentials in films being released this year—first Ron Lurie’s “The Outpost,” and now this uneven but undeniably powerful drama of redemption.  Malky is a character at once pitiful and menacing, and Bloom manages to convey the man’s different, indeed contradictory, aspects.  The other remarkable performance in the picture comes from Reid, Derek Jacobi’s co-star in “Last Tango in Halifax,” whose portrait of Malky’s querulous, defensive mother is memorable.  Montgomery and Ferns are also very good, and while Creed-Miles overplays Paul’s intensity, Smillie’s quiet reserve makes the priest seem all the more reprehensible.  Mention should be made of Anthony Neale’s production design, Felix  Windemann’s cinematography and Stephen Hilton’s music score, which combine to give the film a solemnly sepulchral tone.

Yet despite its virtues, “Retaliation” suffers from an overuse of religious symbolism and the studiously somber pace favored by the directors, one of whom (Paul, again) also served as editor.  Too often the approach makes Bloom struggle to maintain control of scenes as the camera lingers on him too long.  Even the strongest performance requires more than just room to breathe; it needs a calibration of space and time that the Shammasians too often fail to provide.  The result isn’t profundity but mere sluggishness.

So while it’s impossible not to appreciate its lead performance, as a whole the film is only variably successful.