Review: Rachel McAdams and Rachel Weisz explore a forbidden love affair in ‘Disobedience’
The unruly power of romantic passion is one of the movies’ great themes, and it’s never more disruptive than when it manifests itself in what used to be called the love that dared not speak its name.
But though films from Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” to Todd Haynes’ “Carol” have made the difficulties of same sex love one of modern drama’s familiar tropes, the sensitively done “Disobedience” manages to do things a bit differently.
This is due not only to the fine work by Chilean director-cowriter Sebastián Lelio, working in English for the first time, but also to unusually delicate acting by a superior cast.
Lelio’s work, starting with the riveting “Gloria” and including this year’s foreign language film Oscar winner “A Fantastic Woman,” is characterized by complex and nuanced female characters.
So it is not surprising that two of contemporary cinema’s best actresses, Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, take the leading roles here and that Alessandro Nivola does perhaps the most affecting work of his career as their costar.
But though the film’s publicity and advanced buzz focus on Weisz’s Ronit Krushka — a woman whose return to the cloistered London Jewish community she exiled herself from causes disturbances in the field — Ronit’s story is not where the most involving parts of the drama lie.
That would be with McAdams’ Esti Kuperman, the woman left behind, and Dovid Kuperman (Nivola), one of the most respected men in their North London Jewish community.
As written by director Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from a novel by Naomi Alderman, “Disobedience” begins in London with the final sermon given by a revered religious leader respectfully known as the Rav (Anton Lesser).
Then we quickly switch scenes to the hipper enclaves of Manhattan, where a photographer known to her friends as Ronnie (Weisz) is shooting trendy subjects and working hard at making a name for herself.
Then comes a phone call that changes everything. The photographer goes on a bender, tears her shirt (a Jewish custom of mourning) and just about collapses in despair.
When next we see her, the woman is standing hesitantly on a street in North London in the neighborhood where everyone knew her as Ronit, the daughter and only child of the Rav, estranged from her father for years and returning for his funeral.
Characterized as “a giant of Anglo-Judaism,” the late Rav and his followers are described as and dress like modern Orthodox Jews, but many of their customs, like refusing to so much as shake hands with women, make them seem more like ultra-Orthodox Haredi.
The house Ronit is standing in front of, where the Rav’s followers are sitting shiva in his memory, belongs to Dovid (Nivola), one of Ronit’s tightest friends before she left as well as the Rav’s closest disciple and his likely successor.
Much to Ronit’s shock, Dovid is married to Esti (McAdams), the third member of their childhood trio. There is something in the air during this reunion, some unfinished business, but that doesn’t stop Dovid from offering Ronit the spare room in their house during her London stay.
It doesn’t take the deductive abilities of Hercule Poirot to figure out that a strong attraction between these two women was part of the reason Ronit initially left town. The question is what will happen now that she has returned.
Some of “Disobedience” inevitably plays out in familiar, expected ways, with the narrowness, intolerance and busybody nature of the religious community making for an initial easy target.
Similarly, Weisz’s role as the firebrand Ronit, still determined to overturn apple carts, plays well to the actress’ considerable strengths but is not any kind of surprise. What makes the situation increasingly interesting is the nature of Esti’s character and her dilemma.
Coming across at first as timid and plain (quite a challenge for an actress as charismatic as McAdams), Esti turns out to be passionate not only about Ronit but about her vocation as a teacher in a girls high school as well. What she wants is not necessarily freedom but choice.
As Lelio’s earlier films demonstrated, the director’s style is restrained but potent, which helps the impact of the actors’ performances as well as the picture’s fairly graphic love scene. The possibilities for these characters are more varied than it initially seems, and “Disobedience” thoughtfully considers them all.
Rating: R, for some strong sexuality
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.