The hometown that Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) returns to after her father’s death is a cold and gray one, a drab corner of North London that she fled in her youth. It isn’t the neighborhood itself that drove Ronit away, but the Orthodox Jewish community she was raised in—which is at odds with her bisexuality and her relaxed attitude toward personal relationships. Restraint is what defines the society at the center of Sebastián Lelio’s new film Disobedience: When Ronit absentmindedly moves to hug a man in one scene, he flinches in horror, forcing her to stop short.
Based on Naomi Alderman’s novel, Disobedience is a sober assessment of the insularity of faith, a movie that can be both frustratingly simple and thuddingly bleak. Back home in Hendon, Ronit reunites with Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she once shared an intense but complicated romantic bond, and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a buttoned-up childhood friend who married Esti. Lelio’s film (co-written with the playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz) quickly sets up the impending collision between Dovid’s traditional values and Ronit’s free-spirited lifestyle, with Esti caught in the middle, but then takes an eternity to actually bring things to a head.
Lelio is a supremely talented director who has, until now, worked in his native Chile. His last film, A Fantastic Woman, was a similarly downbeat look at love and prejudice that starred the trans actress Daniela Vega; an undeniable triumph, the movie won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Disobedience has the same tight focus, keeping its action largely confined to Ronit and Esti (with Dovid looking on, disapprovingly), but it seems less understanding of the world it’s navigating. Disobedience is framed as a tale of escape from a monotonous society, but its characters spend the whole time standing in the threshold, wondering whether to flee.
Ronit is rebellious, Esti is repressed—two points that Disobedience repeats over and over until the dynamic starts to feel caricatured. London’s Orthodox Jewish enclave is small and hermetic, and Lelio conveys that as much as he can, setting his action in cramped quarters and staging multiple awkward dinner conversations and whispered arguments in Dovid and Esti’s home. Despite the two women’s knotted past, Ronit stays with the married couple as she prepares for her father’s funeral, setting the stage for the sexual tension between her and Esti to finally explode.
Weisz, who produced the movie, is often cast in this sort of role—the open-minded outcast looked at somewhat askance by the rest of the community (in the last few years, she’s been in The Lobster, The Light Between Oceans, and My Cousin Rachel). McAdams, sporting a thick English accent and an even thicker wig, has a little more to work with as Esti struggles between the ordered way of life she’s always known and the confusing deliverance Ronit is offering. But Esti’s conflict is too binary to be believable.
Lelio could have perhaps done a better job of acknowledging the inexorable power of inertia. It’s hard to understand what exactly is tethering Esti to her obviously miserable life (her romantic connection with Dovid is perfunctory at best) beyond the simple notion of “tradition.” Instead of trying to reckon with Esti’s beliefs, Disobedience crawls tediously toward her final confrontation with Dovid. Playing Esti’s husband and inadvertent oppressor, Nivola is appropriately grumpy and subdued, suggesting a well of rage hiding beneath a passive surface. But Dovid, too, comes off as strangely two-dimensional.
Disobedience’s passionate moments between Esti and Ronit are more compelling—particularly the much-discussed sex scene at the film’s center, which was meticulously choreographed and unfolds in a far subtler, and less gratuitous, manner than a lot of Hollywood forbidden-romance fare. But those moments are few and far between. To make matters worse, Disobedience is—for the most part—hellishly bland to look at. The visual inventiveness that made A Fantastic Woman so spellbinding, even in its emotionally taxing moments, is absent here. So, too, is a definitive, soaring conclusion (which A Fantastic Woman had). Disobedience finishes on an annoyingly vague note, almost as if Lelio and Lenkiewicz had stumbled on a more interesting, expansive narrative in the final act but didn’t quite know how to pursue it. The result is a film that, from beginning to end, feels as hopelessly lost as its characters do.