Disobedience review Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams impress in powerful love story
The English language debut from Chilean director Sebastin Lelio is a rich and rewarding drama about a woman returning home to the Orthodox Jewish community of north London
The question of whose disobedience, and what kind of disobedience it is, are at the heart of this absorbing and moving love story from Chilean director Sebastin Lelio, his English language debut, following very quickly on the heels of his film A Fantastic Woman which has been a festival-circuit hit this year.
Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola are at the top of their game, perhaps especially Nivola in a supporting role; he achieves a sympathy and maturity that I have never seen from him before.
The drama takes place in the Orthodox Jewish community of north London. Weisz is Ronit, a young woman we see initially in New York: a photographer evidently living a fashionable and bohemian lifestyle. Out of the blue, she receives some bad news from back home, and Lelio shows that her first impulse is to try to anesthetise the pain with drink and casual sex. But the truth must be faced up to, and a much-feared homecoming is necessary. Because she has learned of the death of her father, a much-respected rabbi: a fierce, potent cameo for Anton Lesser.
It was partly to escape the stifling rigidity of her fathers values that Ronit fled London for a secular life in New York in the first place: defiant, relishing freedom, but nursing a wound of guilt for breaking her fathers heart; she was an only child and he a widower. Ronit was all he had left.
Back in London for the various ceremonies – the very epitome of the religious observance and obedience that she had wanted to get away from – Ronit feels all eyes on her: curious, and disapproving, but in a way cowed by her authentic connection with this revered religious leader. People have a habit of remarking, in tones of awe, how much she resembles her late mother. Weisz conveys her grief, her disorientation, her borderline-hysterical need to mock the pieties.
Ronit is disturbed most by two friends from the old days, from whom she senses a nervous disapproval. One his Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her fathers favourite pupil, a virtual adopted son who is now a much admired young rabbi himself. The other is Esti, beautifully played by Rachel McAdams, who was Ronits only ally in youthful rebelliousness back in the day. But now Esti is married to Dovid and Ronit is clearly shocked by how much older they seem, how much more conservative, how greater the gulf is between them, and by that token how much more intense her loneliness and grief then feels.
But Lelios drama is not simply about this, because it is clear that Esti is not in fact so estranged from Ronit as first appeared, and this homecoming triggers a new independence of mind in her that makes everyone very uneasy. The truth is that Ronit and Esti were more than friends – and it wasnt just religion she was fleeing but forbidden love. They could easily be more than friends again and the movie adroitly lets us decide just how open a secret their relationship always was.
There an overwhelming passion and eroticism to this reunion, especially in contrast to the dutiful marital lovemaking between Dovid and Esti which Lelio had already shown us: trying of course for a baby. In the bedroom, before sex, Esti had listlessly removed not just her clothes but her wig: the badge of female piety. One of Ronits most misjudged attempts at diplomacy is to try wearing a wig herself, a temporary gesture which succeeds only in irritating everyone and reminding her late fathers friends how much they still resent her desertion.
The poignancy of her dads modest family home and his death bed, moved downstairs to the front room in his final days, reinforces the severity and austerity of Ronits family background – and also how sensationally transgressive her renewed affair with Esti is. McAdams herself is excellent at suggesting how with sheer force of will and learned piety she had got her life together while Ronit was away and is now a schoolteacher. We see her leading a class in discussing Shakespeares Othello. The choice of play interestingly leads the audience to wonder how Dovid is going to take the news of his wifes adventure.
Dovid himself is a wiry, muscular warrior of the faith. But he is not a tyrant or a bully and he is himself conflicted in various ways about Ronits reappearance. Rather daringly, he is teaching the Song Of Songs in his own scriptural class and permitting candid discussion of its erotic qualities.
The drama is expertly controlled by Lelio, lit and shot in muted and subdued colour tones by cinematographer Danny Cohen and it has a very interesting musical score by Matthew Herbert; its musing and almost playful woodwind figures cut against the expected sombreness and obvious melancholy to contribute to this sense of disorientation and subversion. This is richly satisfying and powerfully acted work.
- Disobedience is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the UK on 4 May with a US date yet to be announced