A clumsily assembled film can remind us that every narrative feature is like a Jenga tower, with each block building on the foundational ones under it and faulty, minor-seeming pieces poised to upset a chunk of the whole. If it were an edifice, “Disobedience” — about repressed Sapphic desire in the Orthodox Jewish community — would stand tall but wobbly, its hollows more conspicuous than its frame.
Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, who won the 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for the transgender drama “A Fantastic Woman,” directs this spotty adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s debut novel, set in the same London suburb where the author, a former Orthodox Jew, grew up. (Lelio co-wrote the script with playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who co-penned “Ida,” 2015’s Polish winner in the same Oscar category).
With Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring as its furtive, inflamed lovers, “Disobedience” has pedigree to spare. But the result feels wonky and lopsided, as if several crucial scenes were left behind on the cutting-room floor. Other elements feel just off enough to distract from the gloomy, unsettled mood, like Weisz’s black-sheep character’s cutting critiques of Orthodox femininity and the actresses’ not-quite-crackling chemistry (which is watered down further by a, let’s say, unusual act during their extensive sex scene).
Among other things, “A Fantastic Woman” is a study of the spaces where its protagonist felt either at ease or fiercely unwelcome. “Disobedience” is one too, as Weisz’s Ronit, the photographer daughter of a London rabbi, returns home after trading Orthodox Judaism for New York years ago. The film’s first great scene takes place in the kitchen of her deceased father’s house, where she catches up with one of the few members of the community who’ll still talk to her: her dad’s surrogate son Dovid (Alessandro Nivola, who best embodies the charged restraint that characterizes the picture’s early tone.)
Dovid is soft of voice and kind in demeanor: He invites the outcast Ronit to stay at his house almost immediately. But he’s stiffly withholding, too, especially when Ronit half-flirtily asks him who he married. Not that it matters, since all Orthodox women are clones of one another, Ronit implies, giving no indication that she thinks any differently of Dovid’s wife, the dutiful, modesty-wigged Esti (McAdams in a shaky British accent). The two women make one another bristle, so when they later hungrily kiss in Ronit’s childhood home, resuming the relationship they started as teenagers, it’s as much of a shock as it would have been to the rabbi: No one could have expected this.
Ronit is dealt a series of blows by her family post-mortem: Her father’s obituary says he died childless, and his will reflects their extreme estrangement. An uncle blames Ronit for not nursing him through his final days, and when she says she didn’t know he was ailing, the relative indicts her for not staying by the rabbi’s side — the kind of intergenerational back-and-forth that feels familiarly unwinnable. But we learn precious little about Ronit’s relationship with her father beyond her ostracism and the ensuing disgrace, which renders her grief distant and perfunctory.
Lelio just might be more attuned to the ways that individuals are impacted by social systems than to character arcs. Ronit and Esti’s affair is discovered almost immediately by the close-knit community, and we see how all the players in their love triangle bear the costs, albeit not equally, of acquiescing to patriarchal demands.
Ronit arrived in London a mostly free woman, but her continued horror at the life she would have led — trapped in a loveless marriage, then committing suicide — makes her a persona non grata, especially among other Orthodox women. Esti was promised a “cure” for her queerness, but now realizes that the price may have been too high.
Even Dovid suffers, his well-intentioned willingness to maintain order creating little earthquakes beneath his feet. Nivola quietly steals the picture by being impossible to look away from; Dovid presents the film’s most intense suspense, the young rabbi torn between rage and understanding, violence and decency, as he confronts unruly female behavior under his own roof.
I wish I’d been as rapt by Ronit and Esti’s romance, but enough pages feel ripped from the book about their relationship (including why Esti gives their love story the ending that she does) that I kept wondering what I was missing. What came through more distinctly than love was fear, as each character contemplates an uncertain future shaped by priorities they had never anticipated. Disobeying outside authorities can be difficult; disobeying the desires of the heart, impossible.