Movies

Disobedience Is a Sensitive Examination of a False Dilemma

In Sebastián Lelio’s follow-up to A Fantastic Woman, Rachel McAdams must choose between her husband and Rachel Weisz.

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience.
Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience.
Bleecker Street Media

In Disobedience, Rachel Weisz’s hair has a lot of work to do. When we first see her character, Ronit Krushka, in her adopted home of New York City, her thick black mane frames her slender face while she works as a photographer. She tugs on strands as she concentrates, rearranges her cascading curls when she adjusts her clothing, and after she learns that her father has died back in London, her hands reflexively reach up to her crowning glory.

The next day, Ronit finds herself in a rabbi’s house in North London being stared at. She stands out not because she’s a stranger—most of the mourners gathered in the home of Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) knew her when she was a girl—but because she wasn’t expected. Her father was the rav, the most senior and respected rabbi in this close-knit Orthodox community, but the two of them were estranged for many years, so estranged that the rav’s obituary in the local Jewish newspaper claims, “Sadly, he left no children.” And then there is the matter of her hair: The married women of this community—and pretty much all the women in attendance are married—wear sheitels, or wigs, and Ronit’s luxurious locks are clearly her own.

“We never thought we’d see you again,” a woman tells her, in a tone that suggests she really means, “We never wanted to see you again.” Only Dovid, the rav’s mentee and closest helper, seems happy to be reunited with Ronit, inviting her to stay in the home he shares with his wife, Esti (Rachel McAdams), in the days leading up to the rav’s hesped, or eulogy. Ronit is shocked to learn that Dovid and Esti are married. As teenagers, the three of them were a trio of close friends, but for reasons she doesn’t articulate at first, Ronit has a hard time reading the two of them as a couple.

Still, Ronit accepts the Kupermans’ hospitality, even though Esti seems uncomfortable in her presence and in spite of her own confusion as to why she’s really returned to London. Nor is it entirely clear why Dovid can stand to have her in the house: She’s a terrible guest, always on the verge of lighting a cigarette indoors or embarrassing her hosts.

It’s only when Esti spots Ronit walking down the street wearing a wig—she dons one when visiting her uncle at his sheitel factory and, somewhat incredibly, leaves with it on—that she is somehow shaken off script. As Esti accompanies Ronit on a visit to her father’s, the women’s conversation is suddenly the jokey banter of two old friends. Once they’re inside the house where they spent so much time as teenagers, much of it unsupervised, Esti reaches out to Ronit, just as she did decades earlier, kissing her with a passion that is clearly missing from her life with Dovid. That ravenous make-out session opens the floodgates. Before too much longer, they are kissing in dark but nevertheless public places, Esti is reported to the headmistress of the Orthodox girls’ school where she teaches, and the certainty of Dovid succeeding the rav is thrown into doubt.

At this point, the movie transforms from a (gefilte) fish-returning-to-water story to a love triangle, in which Esti must choose between a relationship stuffed with scream-inducing sex or a cold coupling that confers a place of respect in the community. It doesn’t seem like a fair fight. Director Sebastián Lelio wants viewers to see Esti’s choice as being impossibly difficult because each option offers something wonderful. But because Weisz emphasizes the ways that grief can utterly destabilize a person—the only time Ronit seems even to understand why she is in London is when she’s making love with Esti—she doesn’t appear to offer Esti anything beyond sexual chemistry. It’s easy enough to see the attraction of that, but is it enough to cause Esti to walk away from her home, job, and support system? Meanwhile, staying with Dovid in a tight-knit community, where anything resembling an open relationship is utterly impractical, would mean a life without sexual satisfaction.

Lelio, whose A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar this year for Best Foreign Language Film, has a knack for observing small moments as well as huge dilemmas, as when he shows Ronit momentarily looking the wrong way as she crosses the street on her return to London or has her instinctively reach out to hug Dovid before remembering that he’s forbidden to touch a woman who isn’t his wife. Disobedience provides a sensitive portrait of immigration by showing the precise ways returnees can feel like foreigners in places that were once their homes. Every immigrant recognizes the hunger Ronit feels when she orders favorite dishes from a cafe in the old neighborhood—nothing tastes better than nostalgia.

But other beats are delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. When the women turn on a radio in Ronit’s teenage bedroom, magically tune in to The Cure’s “Love Song,” and hear lines like, “Whenever I’m alone with you/ You make me feel like I am home again” and “However far away/ I will always love you,” they should immediately call the obvious police. Similarly, in a movie that involves a love triangle and questions of betrayal, it’s a crime against restraint to have Esti’s English class studying Othello.

Weisz, who is also one of the producers of Disobedience, told Variety that she read “a lot of lesbian literature” while hunting for a story that would provide juicy roles for women. The Naomi Alderman novel from which the movie is adapted is smart and complicated and unexpectedly funny, but it was published in 2006. The Orthodox community in which Ronit, Esti, and Dovid (along with the author herself) grew up may not have changed since then, but the laws of the United Kingdom have, along with social attitudes toward LGBTQ relationships. For most of its duration, the film wants us to think that Esti’s only choices are Ronit or Dovid, but contemporary viewers know that while forging a brand-new path wouldn’t be easy for Esti, it wouldn’t be impossible either. Esti can do better than either her husband or her first love, no matter how gorgeous Ronit’s hair may be.