There’s a coldness to the core of Disobedience, Sebastián Lelio’s new romantic drama film, released months ago across the pond but only now here in the U.K. Its colour palette defined by greys and a general muteness, its characters bundled in coats and walking through clouded cities. Lelio seems to want us to fight to reach the heart of his film – a heart that is unquestionably there, just not always in reach. It makes for gripping, ultimately highly satisfying viewing, even if this battle to embrace the film’s emotional side threatens to hold you at a distance until you can break through the surface and revel in the surplus of complex feeling that awaits you underneath.
Rachel Weisz is Ronit Krushka, a New York City photographer called back to London when her father, a Jewish teacher, dies suddenly. Her return to her roots isn’t quite a happy reunion though, as we slowly come to learn than Ronit was shunned from the community for reasons not yet clear. As she reunites with former friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), we begin to piece together the full story – Ronit and Esti once shared an attraction, a spark the community long thought in the past but very much one that threatens to reignite with their re-immersion into each other’s lives.
Lelio’s script, co-written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and adapted from Naomi Alderman’s source novel, walks the fine line between preachy and powerful. Disobedience is tackling some weighty subject matter here, concerning itself with themes of religion, sexuality and identity, but the film never makes the mistake of landing as judgemental. It would be easy for Lelio to point the finger at the Jewish community at the core of the film, but he wisely sidesteps the wide-reaching blame in favour of his own characters, resulting in a piece more impassioned than it is accusatory. Ronit and Esti are instantly compelling people, and watching their connection grow from former flames catching eyes in a crowded room to a night of uninterrupted, unmistakeable passion, as if the world is theirs and no-one else’s, is both engaging and moving. By avoiding an overwhelming sense of anger or judgment, Lelio finds something notably more personal and microscopic. It’s a relationship that feels lived in, one we desperately want to succeed, even if we know it probably isn’t possible.
This very much comes down to two main factors: the way the film shifts its thematic core as it progresses, and the lead performances from Weisz and McAdams. We’ll start with the former. Disobedience begins on reliable footing, as it pokes into the kind of themes already mentioned here. It quietly establishes the differences in sexuality between Ronit and Esti, exploring them as people within their attraction to each other. It spends time looking at Ronit’s rebuttal of religion, her adamant refusal to conform to what the Jewish community expects of her. It uses these two elements to mark her character, but allows her to be defined by more than that – her determination and her respect for those she cares for are the aspects to her character remember more clearly.
As the film pushes forward, though, Lelio starts to dive deeper into Esti’s marriage with Dovid, finding there a powerful, surprising contemplation on free will and the battle between the lives we ought to lead and the ones we want to. The film tackles such topics in thoughtful ways, dedicating ample time to Esti’s uncertainty rather than posing a simple question and having her confidently resolve it. Sometimes our choices are difficult and sometimes we don’t have all the answers, Disobedience understands this and embraces it. Watching Esti’s struggle here isn’t always easy viewing, especially coupled with a reveal that drops at the end of the second act and threatens to derail both relationships in her life, but it’s persistently riveting in how it portrays her journey. What begins on solid, if familiar, ground has unfolded into something more thematically complex and daring than we perhaps anticipated, and the film is all the richer for it.
Carrying the weight of such dense material are Rachels Weisz and McAdams, both of whom give stunning, deeply felt performances. McAdams is given the quieter role of the two, but she twists this calmness into something bigger than her own character. There’s a history to Esti that McAdams makes us feel, transforming her from victim to empowerment. Weisz has the showier material of the two, mostly due to Ronit’s fiery personality and the circumstances she finds herself in here, but she nonetheless demonstrates control and command. By turns dormant and explosive, Weisz leads from the front and finds a compelling protagonist in Ronit. Both women very clearly feel the burdens of their characters, and both use this to give performances that rank with the best of the year.
That Disobedience succeeds in finding an ending that both refuses to take the easy options and feels entirely satisfying is merely a bonus on top of what is an already rich, complex study of character. It’s perhaps easy to argue that the film lacks the confidence early on that it wears on its sleeve by the end, but this growth can be seen as fundamental to the narrative pathway Disobedience has chosen to charter – it binds itself to its characters and allows itself to reflect what they exude. This is an intelligent romantic drama, with more on its mind than simple “will they / won’t they” dynamics. It’s a story worth telling, told well. You can’t really ask for much more than that.
Directed by: Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola