Much is said without words in complicated relationship
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.