Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola. Directed by: Sebastian Lelio
Sebastian Lelio’s previous feature A Fantastic Woman entered into history with its Oscar win for Best Foreign Language film, for being a positive but still intensely sad portrait of being transgendered, featuring a career-making role by Daniela Vega, who in turn made some history herself by being the first transgender person to present an Academy Award (she was robbed of a nod for her role in the film).
Now, Lelio makes his English language debut with another story of the LGBT community with Disobedience, an adaptation of the novel of the same by Naomi Alderman. The film follows the story of two British Orthodox Jewish women, whose fleeting romantic feelings for each other in their youth comes to a head when they reunite in the wake of one’s Rabbi father’s passing.
Before the film even begins, Lelio is already a director of some note – his Cannes Festival Prize-winning film Gloria was a critical smash and a fantastic story of a woman in her twilight years still full of life, A Fantastic Woman a massive step for the LGBT community at large but even more so for trans-people everywhere, even with Disobedience coming out, Lelio has already remade Gloria for the US as Gloria Bell with Julianne Moore in the title role. Adapting the novel with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Lelio has easily made one of the most intimate portrayals of homosexuality as well as being a well-rounded look at modern-day Judaism.
The irony is not entirely lost that the story is set in London during a time when anti-semitism is rife, nor is it something that looms over the film heavily. What Disobedience does is to show a religion that is all too often mired in nasty comments, jokes and the ever-present memory of the Holocaust and to show much like Islam, much like Catholicism, it’s an everyday religion that exists, but it does have it’s traditions.
It appears that Rachel Weisz is on some kind of roll, not only is she now turning her talents to producing material but her turn as Rabbi’s daughter Ronit Krushka (Weisz herself was raised Jewish but has since admitted to a lapse in faith) is one of many in a recent spree of intense character studies. Much like her turns in Denial, My Cousin Rachel and The Mercy, this is less a forensic look at a character and more a full-on autopsy, taking out the organs to fully understand a human being. In her role, Weisz is able to modulate between the complexities of grief, faith and sexual desire. Which in itself is no easy task, to do so and make it look easy is all the more impressive.
It happens to be that she is sharing the screen with a co-star of equal talent. Rachel McAdams as friend and (possibly) true love Esti Kuperman perhaps still riding that Oscar nomination from Spotlight, this is exactly the sort of role McAdams should get more of. It’s a case of a woman finally finding the role that suits her, McAdams is a gorgeous woman – of course, there’s no doubt – but she’s able to show a pain underneath the Sigourney Weaver-esque smile. It may appear the less appetising of the parts, in that she has to be the one who follows the Jewish faith and has the husband but actually there’s more room for nuance, for a character to develop and become something.
Despite all this, Lelio never loses his focus, he knows the story is of these two with a third person in the picture in Dovid Kuperman, Esti’s husband, played fantastically by Alessandro Nivola. Never before has he shown this restraint in a role and as such is able to modulate between being someone we wish would go away and someone we feel genuine sympathy for. Being an educated man Lelio never once lets us think this is a simple love triangle, there’s something far more murky about it, more confusing. That actually what we don’t realise is this is Esti’s story torn between a new world and the old world.
For all it’s brilliant storytelling the camera work by DoP Danny Cohen is wonderfully intimate and understated, the film is shot beautifully, almost timeless in it’s appearance, it doesn’t do that annoying thing of trying to make London look like a slick modern city but rather he and Lelio delight in showing just how old London looks, just how lived in it is (despite the fact that London is about 79% cranes).
By the end, this intimate study of characters becomes not about big gestures of good and bad and love conquers all, but has more in common with a film like last years excellent Call Me By Your Name. This is a film that shows what the four main people can do, and signals great things to come from Lelio, but more importantly Disobedience obeys the one rule of films – it’s good, entertaining and very moving.