Rachel Weisz gives an assured performance as Ronit Krushka, the estranged daughter of a revered rabbi in this highly anticipated, poignant, slow paced tale of forbidden love, loss and community. Based on Naomi Alderman’s award winning 2006 novel of the same name, the film is the English language debut of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria), who also co-wrote the script with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida).
Set within the confines of north London’s Orthodox community (much of it was shot in Hendon), Ronit, a New York based photographer, returns to the place of her childhood on learning of her father’s death. But her presence is largely an unwelcome one, to a community that is cold, joyless and devoid of compassion; a mood reinforced by cinematographer Danny Cohen’s use of muted, bleak tones.
Ronit’s arrival stirs up events and emotions of the past and unsettles the tight knit community’s status quo, in particular with her old friend and former lover, Esti (powerfully and sympathetically played by Rachel McAdams), who, since Ronit’s departure — a consequence of their affair — has tried to fulfil the role of a dutiful, married woman with their shared childhood friend and the rabbi’s likely successor, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola).
The two women soon reignite their relationship culminating in a set-piece lovemaking scene. However, the excessively long sequence feels over choreographed and strangely lacks the fierce intensity, passion and urgency conveyed so beautifully between two religious women in the Israeli debut feature, Red Cow.
Underpinning the drama is an atmosphere of overwhelming restraint, with each of the three protagonists suffering inner torment. Esti has suppressed her sexual identity as a gay woman in a marriage that was meant to “cure” her. Ronit may have escaped the strictures of religious life for secular and sexual freedom, but she is grappling with the pain of her father’s rejection and a loss of roots: his will stated he was childless. Meanwhile, Dovid is trying to uphold tradition and manage the simmering situation. “It’s my house we’re talking about. I keep it in order,” he tells suspicious members of the community.
But for all its big emotions, Disobedience is, surprisingly, stilted. Not only is there is little chemistry between the women, the narrative, at times, tends to spoon feed viewers.
Ronit asking Esti if she has sex with Dovid every Friday, only to be told that “It’s expected,” verges on the faintly ridiculous — an overly heavy-handed signalling of what Orthodox Jews are supposed to do. Moreover, surely Ronit would have known the community’s customs, including that hugging Dovid — which she goes to do when she first meets him — is not permitted; a transgression for which she then apologises profusely. In the interests of authenticity, the film had approximately a dozen Jewish consultants but, despite this investment, these minor moments grate somewhat.
Frustratingly, there are few surprises. Esti’s dilemma is more about a fear of breaking away from the safety of the only life she has known. And, notwithstanding her rebellious nature, Ronit feels strangely one-dimensional. Apart from Esti’s convincing, impassioned speech to Dovid in the final act, Disobedience doesn’t go beyond a superficial examination of its characters’ struggles in a society that calls for richer scrutiny.
Disobedience is on general release from 30 November