This enthralling, disarming story about rekindled love, set in a London Orthodox Jewish community, may be the perfect way to spend just shy of two hours.
Disobedience is based on the Orange prize-winning 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman, a former member of a London Jewish Orthodox community. The story is deftly executed by Chilean film-maker Sebastián Lelio in his first English-language film, co-written with Rebecca Lenkiewicz.
Ronit (Rachel Weisz) is a New York City portrait photographer who returns to the Orthodox Jewish community of her youth after hearing that her father, a much-cherished rabbi (Anton Lesser), has passed away. Her grief is introduced to the viewer with a fascinating juxtaposition of scenes: Ronit receives the phone call, has a drink in a bar, has sex in a toilet stall, and goes ice-skating.
Ronit’s prodigal return to London is met with distaste by certain members of her former community. She is invited to stay by childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who is now a rabbi, and married to Esti (Rachel McAdams). It’s immediately clear that Ronit and Esti have one hell of a past, and also that they haven’t shaken their immense magnetic pull towards each other.
Disobedience unfurls languidly at times, but aptly so: the scenes are sublimely orchestrated by Lelio. The acting is utterly mesmerising too – these performers know how to lean into tension as they navigate the triggers and pains of their characters. And it’s shaky ground that they tread, as the rigidity of Esti’s day-to-day life is inevitably tested by Ronit’s return.
Throughout the film, issues centring on duty, desire and identity all feel deeply personal to observe. Weisz steeps Ronit’s delicately nuanced grief and heartbreak in a concoction of anger, regret and validation. McAdams’ Esti is a layered performance that surpasses her impressive depth in previous roles like Spotlight. Nivola may have had a choice to play out Dovid’s myriad of conflicts in a more overt way, but his handling of Dovid’s journey is delicate and quietly raw.
Disobedience was released theatrically in 2018 and was nominated for five British independent film awards, with Nivola winning for best supporting actor. In addition to its warm reception on the festival circuit, it was also lauded for its portrayal of the rekindled eroticism and passion between Ronit and Esti.
Disobedience is now sitting pretty in the Netflix catalogue, among many other independent drama gems. Lucky for us. Such an absorbing study of desire and self-sacrifice, it’s a story that has a kind of staying power made all the more potent by watching it in the quiet of the home.