The Chilean-Argentine director and co-writer Sebastián Lelio moves to London and seems entirely at home.


The Rachels Weisz and McAdams


If I say that watching Disobedience has gone down as my most disappointing cinema experience this year it sounds as though the film is thoroughly bad - yet that is very, very far from being the case. Instead, it's a work that looks set as one views it to be one of the highlights of the film year only to take a direction that left me baffled and surprised by its ineptitude so late in the day. I have the impression that many people do not share my reservations and, if so, I am delighted.


Disobedience marks the English language debut of the distinguished Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio who shares the writing credit with Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Their source material is the 2006 novel by Naomi Alderman set in a North London Orthodox Jewish community to which a rabbi's daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), returns after living in New York. It is the death of her father from whom she had become estranged that brings her back and, although the issue is initially implicit rather than stated, what is central here is the fact that Ronit is a lesbian. She now discovers that her former lover, Esti (Rachel McAdams), has married her childhood friend, David Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), a man who had been her father's staunchest follower and is now regarded as his likely successor.


Although a foreigner, Lelio captures this world with complete conviction and obtains exemplary performances. Since 2011, the year of The Deep Blue Sea, Weisz has increasingly established herself as one of our finest actresses and McAdams matches her here. Despite Esti accepting the conventional path of heterosexual marriage, the reunion with Ronit rekindles their former passion and confirms Esti's real nature. Consequently, the film becomes a work about either following or rejecting one's true self. When Esti declares, "I've always wanted it," one is reminded of Dirk Bogarde's famous line, "I wanted him," in Victim and, if that 1961 film was aimed at changing the law against homosexuality, Disobedience is surely seeking no less to make lesbianism more acceptable in the Jewish world today (thus making this a work that the late gay rabbi Lionel Blue would have endorsed). It seeks to achieve this through a series of scenes in which the women kiss: even more than in a later sex scene, the film is able to convey wonderfully well the compulsive sharing of these moments as a validation of the depth of feeling that is present here. In passing, I would mention too that the film benefits throughout from a subtle and unusual music score by Matthew Herbert.


Because Esti is now married, the drama becomes one with no easy resolution. Back in 1982 John Sayles in filming Lianna (surely the very best lesbian film made by a man) overcame a similar problem brilliantly, but here the writing stumbles badly - or so I felt. The choice that Ronit and Esti have to make is drawn out over several episodes, David too readily for real conviction has what is akin to a change of heart, a climactic speech linked to the film's opening scene feels contrived and the concluding shot far from being satisfying feels at once sentimental and fudged. But up to that stage Disobedience is fully worthy of its ambitions and contains superb performances from both of its leading actresses.




Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Allan Corduner, Anton Lesser, Nicholas Woodeson, Bernice Stegers, Steve Furst.


Dir Sebastián Lelio, Pro Frida Torresblanco, Ed Guiney and Rachel Weisz, Screenplay Sebastián Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, from the novel by Naomi Alderman, Ph Danny Cohen, Pro Des Sarah Finlay, Ed Nathan Nugent, Music Matthew Herbert, Costumes Odile Dicks-Mireaux.


Element Pictures/LC6 Productions/Braven Films production/Film4/FilmNation Entertainment-Curzon Artificial Eye.
114 mins. UK/USA/Ireland. 2017. Rel: 30 November 2018. Cert. 15.