Much is said with­out words in com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship

Orlando Sentinel - - CALENDAR - By Michael Phillips

There’s no sus­pense like sexual sus­pense, which is an­other way of say­ing there’s no busi­ness like show busi­ness. In “Dis­obe­di­ence,” di­rec­tor Se­bas­tian Le­lio’s coolly con­trolled film ver­sion of Naomi Al­der­man’s novel, two roads di­verge in a nar­ra­tive, criss­cross­ing and in­ter­twin­ing years later. The ques­tion is: When they get to­gether again, will their lives ever be the same?

The Lon­don-born Ronit works as a pho­tog­ra­pher in New York City. The death of her rabbi fa­ther, a pil­lar of the Hen­don Ortho­dox com­mu­nity, has brought her home again. It’s a pro­foundly uneasy re­turn, though in Le­lio’s rig­or­ously calm and care­fully muted at­mos­phere, a lot of the tor­ment emerges non­ver­bally, in the al­ter­nately wary and sen­sual in­ter­play be­tween Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams.

Ronit’s de­vout cousin Dovid (Alessan­dro Nivola), also a rabbi, has mar­ried Ronit’s school­girl friend Esti (McAdams). The women once were se­cret lovers. Be­ing back among her fa­ther’s friends and fam­ily, and her own mem­o­ries, height­ens Ronit’s dis­lo­ca­tion, as well as her long­ing. Some in the reli­gious com­mu­nity greet her warmly but dis­tantly; oth­ers are openly hos­tile. The tra­di­tion-bound uni­verse Ronit has drifted away from, to quote one pas­sage of Al­der­man’s novel, re­quires “mut­ter­ing qui­etly un­der my breath and car­ry­ing on. Stick­ing it out. In other words, ig­nor­ing the is­sue.”

The is­sue, the love be­tween these two women, is the heart of Al­der­man’s 2006 de­but. The film stream­lines that nar­ra­tive, ex­cis­ing much of Ronit’s New York life, down­play­ing (not al­ways for the bet­ter) the life of the Ortho­dox com­mu­nity in fa­vor of Ronit’s emo­tional re­coil. The screen­play by Le­lio and Re­becca Lenkiewicz does not strive for an equiv­a­lent of the novel’s dual-voice nar­ra­tive. Al­der­man al­ter­nated be­tween an om­ni­scient view­point and per­sonal di­ary­like en­tries from Ronit’s perspective. The film is sim­pler, and at times some­what flat­ter.

Let’s amend that: “Dis­obe­di­ence” would that way, cer­tainly more so, if the key ac­tors weren’t so good. Weisz’s Ronit is like a dyb­buk, caught be­tween her New York self and her Lon­don self, and the ac­tress holds the screen ef­fort­lessly. McAdams’ Esti cap­tures what Al­der­man sug­gested in the novel, a qual­ity of “un­canny still­ness,” prod­ded into mo­tion by her own sup­pressed ap­petites and hon­esty. The key scene, brings Weisz and McAdams back to their old pas­sions, in the present, for an ex­tended en­counter.

If the film lacks a for­mi­da­ble emo­tional im­pact, that’s partly by de­sign. Di­rec­tor Le­lio, whose film “A Fan­tas­tic Woman” won the foreign lan­guage Os­car this year, knows he can­not go at “Dis­obe­di­ence,” a story of an en­closed world and an in­ter­loper, the same way he ap­proached his pre­vi­ous, more straight­for­wardly dra­matic projects. This is his first movie in English; his next film will be a re­make of “Glo­ria” star­ring Ju­lianne Moore. “Dis­obe­di­ence” some­times wants for rougher edges, and a fuller char­ac­ter­i­za­tion for Weisz to play. But there’s real sat­is­fac­tion in watch­ing her, McAdams and Nivola in­habit a fraught and com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship, the per­form­ers fill­ing ev­ery glance and pause with what their con­flicted hearts are say­ing with­out words.

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