Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz’s Disobedience is a powerful faith vs lust story for the ages, says Emily Gargan.
Adapted from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 award winning novel of the same name, Disobedience tells the story of Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), a woman who has escaped the restrictive world in which she was raised and started afresh in New York. However, when her father passes away in the Orthodox Jewish community of Hendon, North London, she is called upon to return home and honour his death.
Back in the confines of her former community, she feels awkward and out of place, and further discomfort arises when she learns her childhood friends Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) – her father’s favourite pupil and natural successor as Rabbi – and Esti (Rachel McAdams) are now a married couple. Indeed, Ronit’s shock at their relationship hints that something less than platonic is hanging over them.
Disobedience marks a kind of trilogy for Chilean director Sebastián Lelio: indeed, his three most recent films all centre on women who are somehow deemed transgressive by their surrounding society for living truthfully as themselves. But, whereas Gloria (2013) and A Fantastic Woman (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2017) are practically technicolour, Disobedience is a muted film of quiet nuances and repressed desires. The exposition is sparse and respects the audience’s intelligence to connect glances, faltering gestures and unfamiliar traditions.
The impact of this is hugely noticeable – and in the best possible way. As many film fans will no doubt have noticed over the years, the depiction of sexual relationships between women is often misjudged by male directors. Disobedience, however, is far from just another one of “those films” (here’s looking at you, Blue Is the Warmest Colour). Indeed, I’d be so bold as to say that the sex is, in this case, in very safe hands. It’s urgent, visceral, realistic and full of love and longing. It is, above all else, romantic. And this is due, in part, to co-producer Weisz’s involvement in the script. The actress worked closely with co-writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Her Naked Skin, Colette) to create a genuine depiction of the physical need between these two women. And this, coupled with Lelio’s sensitive direction, makes us, the viewers, similarly long for them to be together.
Of course, the notion of being disobedient, or obedient, might seem rather outdated in a modern world. Within the confines of a strict religious community, though – and one where homosexuality can result in being alienated and ostracised by friends and family – it is all too relevant. Ronit breaks the rules when she chooses freedom and flees to NYC, and so sees her connection with her loved ones severed. On the flipside, Esti buries her true desires, marries her male friend and performs the sexual duties demanded of her with a resigned stoicism. And she does all of this in order to remain in the familial community that regards her natural orientation as a sin. Her obedience, however, comes at a terrible price: she is lost.
It’s a complicated part, and McAdams is beautiful in it. Indeed, there’s a scene of inner turmoil that packs such an emotional punch that she must surely be a contender for the Emma Thompson crown of quiet despair. And Nivola’s Dovid, whose distress plays out in minute detail across his face, is a master of restraint. In a role that could have quickly turned unsympathetic with a few exaggerated reactions, he remains gentle, sincere and forgiving.
This is a film that could have easily tipped into melodrama but it stays controlled. There are no villains or heroes, these are people struggling between societal expectations and the freedom to choose to live as they wish without hurting the people they love.
Image: Curzon Artificial Eye
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Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.