Film Review: Disobedience

After his Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, Chilean co-writer/director Sebastián Lelio’s filming of Naomi Alderman’s novel Disobedience is another study of complex relationships in uneasy contemporary times, and features beautifully understated performances.

All of Lelio’s films are about love that breaks accepted rules: The Year Of The Tiger concerns the bonds between an estranged family; Gloria depicts desire between ‘older people’; A Fantastic Woman follows the plight of a transgender woman after her partner dies; and this is about two women who have tried to give each other up but can’t.

Lelio’s first film outside Chile opens with photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz, also a producer) hearing of the death of her long-alienated rabbi father while she works at her studio in New York, and we’re with her during a montage of shock and grief in which Weisz truly shines. Ronit travels to her former home in London and faces the orthodox Jewish community who cast her out years before, and she’s sneeringly shunned again (you’ve never heard the greeting, “May you live a long life,” carry such venom).

Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), the heir to Ronit’s dad’s rabbinical position, is surprised but pleased to see her, and his controversial decision to let her stay at his home is a hint that he’s going to meet the challenges to his strict traditionalism that will come later. This is, of course, also complicated greatly by the revelation that he has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), who is the very reason why Ronit ‘left’ in the first place.

Esti is then quietly studied and it’s clear that she has settled for Dovid and doesn’t truly love him, although he’s not a villain and Nivola plays him with an impressive mixture of warmth, forgiveness, repression and anger. He can’t stop what’s inevitable though, and when the two women are alone for the first time and The Cure’s Love Song just happens to be playing on the radio, they finally kiss. They — and we — know that things are about to get awfully tricky.

Another director (and novelist) might have fashioned this material into some kind of softcore sex drama, but Lelio ensures that it’s all about the characters and the emotion. Any concerns that there are lingering anti-Semitic edges here also evaporate, although there is a strong suggestion that this traditional community’s sexism seriously needs to change. And the Rachels are tremendous: Weisz is the focus of the early sections of the narrative while, later, McAdams offers some of her finest work yet.

Rated MA. Disobedience is in cinemas now.

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