Chile’s Sebastián Lelio pays attention to overlooked female stories – as in his recent Oscar-winning ‘A Fantastic Woman’ and its resilient transgender heroine. The director’s forte is on display in his daring but distancing latest, a drama that erupts within a tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community shaken by a patriarchy-defying romance between two women. Set amid north London’s brick lanes, the visually icy ‘Disobedience’ (adapted by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel) lacks the absorbing emotional pull of the filmmaker’s best but packs a rare kind of generosity in its attentiveness to complex customs, navigated without judgment.
We follow the free-spirited, New York-based photographer Ronit (Rachel Weisz) as she returns to her old neighbourhood after the sudden death of her father, an influential rabbi she hasn’t talked to in years. Contemporary-looking and secular – Ronit disturbs a Shabbat dinner with inappropriate talk – she stays at the home of Esti (Rachel McAdams, restrained and terrific) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), her two best friends from childhood who are now married.
Having found a purpose in teaching, the closeted Esti obediently tolerates her passionless husband and their weekly sex. But when her long-suppressed feelings for Ronit resurface (the duo’s prior relationship led to Ronit’s exclusion from her father’s will), Dovid, a sympathetic character, acts with conflicting instincts to protect his wife from suspecting eyes and live up to his own expectations as the late rabbi’s successor.
Ultimately, the two women give in to their desires for one stolen afternoon. While their tryst is filmed poetically, the stilted buildup to it makes the sexual union feel unearned. An ominous ‘There Will Be Blood’–esque score by Matthew Herbert is out of place, especially when the Cure’s ‘Lovesong’ spells things out better. Yet in skillfully straddling the worlds of individualism and tradition, ‘Disobedience’ can almost be forgiven for its deep freeze.