Do you know what I really hate? When a film comes out in the United States and has already been released on home video before it even makes its way to the big screen over here in the UK. Having read and loved Naomi Alderman’s debut novel Disobedience some time ago, I was massively excited about the prospect of this adaptation. It’s just a pity that I had to wait a full EIGHT MONTHS to see it compared to American audiences. Having said that, I had a feeling this one would be worth the wait.
And I wasn’t wrong. Set in the heavily patriarchal, ultra conservative world of the London Jewish Orthodox community, Disobedience tells the story of Ronit (Rachel Weisz) and Esti (Rachel McAdams), two childhood friends who rekindle their forbidden relationship when Ronit returns to London after the death of her father. With Esti now married to David (Alessanndro Nivola), another childhood friend and intended successor to Ronit’s father’s leading position within the community, the film is both a gripping love story and a complex exploration of the expectations, oppressions and limitations of the Orthodox way of life.
In short, Disobedience is brilliant. It is a film that throws you in to an unfamiliar world, whilst at the same time finding threads of relatability at every turn from hidden desire to uncomfortable family dynamics to one’s ambitions to break free from their preordained circumstances. The flow and execution of the film is a perfect mirroring of the feelings and emotions of its protagonists, a quiet, careful considered tone that builds an almost unbearable tension, both sexual and societal, before a release of both these tensions as the narrative unfolds. You won’t find any flashy set pieces here, no explosions and chases, but the drama that unfolds is just as likely to make you hold your breath in suspense as any extravagant action movie.
There is an almost claustrophobic, heavily weighted feel to the film, one that very much represents the oppression and ostracism that our two leading ladies feel not only in themselves but also from outside factors within the community. If there were ever a film that could be described as a ‘delicious drama’, it is this one. Not exploitative by any means, the few bursts of eroticism that arise feel poignant, key and provide a huge release of tension in the plot, just as important as any deep monologue performed fully clothed. Sexuality and religion are like chocolate and peanut butter when it comes to cinematic themes, they always go together in an absorbing and compelling way. When you take both of those themes to two such opposing extremes as Orthodox Judaism and same sex love, you know you’re going to be in for a gripping time.
Ultimately, I’m also just pleased to have another female centric LGBTQ+ film that isn’t the same old cliched garbage. We’ve had a couple of good ones this year, The Miseducation Of Cameron Post included, but there is still a long way to go to balance the scales between good and really, really bad. Watch out for The Favourite in a month or so, I just know that one’s going to be a banger!
Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams are both amazing in their respective roles. As Ronit, Weisz is ‘the girl who got away’, the one who managed to remove herself from her claustrophobic community to start a new, freer life in New York. Her job in the narrative is to arrive and destabilise, and her effortless charisma (not to mention extreme beauty) achieves just that. On the other side of the coin there is McAdams’ Esti, painfully meek and submissive at the start, the girl who was forced to follow the other path of suppression, denial and conformity. I really feel like Rachel McAdams flies under the radar in terms of being underrated. Her most famous roles might be in the likes of Mean Girls and The Notebook, but the thing not to forget is that she is always fantastic, and Disobedience might just be her best performance to date.
Together, the actresses share an electric and compelling chemistry. Ronit helps to bring out the long hidden, authentic side of Esti, and Esti helps to bring Ronit back somewhat to the roots that she so spectacularly chopped away all those years ago. Both Weisz and McAdams bring qualities to the film that the other doesn’t have, and together they make for a perfect leading pair. I can’t imagine two better cast performers. I can’t profess to have made this joke up myself (I wish I had), but it is truly the greatest inter-Rachel love story of our time!
As husband David, Alessanndro Nivola has the unenviable job of being the face of the oppression system that Esti and Ronit are railing against, but his performance is nuanced and layered and the character’s refusal to fulfil the ‘full villain’ archetype in a story like this only serves to make Disobedience more interesting and multi-dimensional.
Overall, Disobedience is absolutely one of my favourite films of the year. The slight narrative changes made between the book and the movie make for, in my opinion, a better, more well rounded adaptation. It’s intense, it’s electric, it’s dramatic and even for someone like me who already knew the plot, it’s one hell of a gripping ride. Shout out to director Sebastián Lelio, who started the year off by winning an Oscar for A Fantastic Woman, and has bookended it with another triumph of diverse, LGBTQ+ filmmaking. Bravo!