There has been a recent spate of feature films and books depicting enclosed communities. This year's 'Apostasy' and 'The Children Act' focused on Jehovah's Witnesses, whilst Tara Westover's excellent autobiography, 'Educated', movingly portrayed her experience within an oppressive Mormon family which she escaped through the saving power of education. Naomi Alderman was ahead of the curve with her 2006 novel 'Disobedience' about forbidden love, set within an orthodox Jewish community. It has now found its second coming in film.
'Disobedience' is Chilean director Sebastian Lelio's first English language feature. As with his earlier films, 'A Fantastic Woman' (winner of the Academy Award for best foreign language film this year) and 'Gloria' (2013), he focuses on the plight of a specific woman, scrutinising how gender and sexuality condition how she may or may not live her life within a specific context. Lelio co-wrote the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who collaborated with Polish film-maker Pawel Pawlikowski on the screenplay of Oscar-winner 'Ida' (2013) about a Polish novice nun, orphaned at birth, who learns that her parents were Jewish victims of the Nazis.
'Disobedience' is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman's novel, with a different ending. In the opening scene, an attractive English woman, Ronit Khruska (Rachel Weisz), conducts a photo shoot in her studio in New York. She receives a phone call telling her that her father Rav Khruska (Anton Lesser), revered rabbi of a Jewish Orthodox community in North London, has died suddenly while giving a sermon in his synagogue. We see a flashback to Rav's last sermon, which concerns the human condition of free will and the necessity of free choice. We learn eventually that Ronit fled London a few years before when her relationship with another woman in the enclosed community was revealed and reviled. She returns for the funeral to find the wake in progress at Dovid Kuperman's (Alessandro Nivola) house. He is a close friend from childhood who was taken under her father's wing to become his successor.
Dovid reveals that he is now married, and whilst she is jokily trying to guess who might be his wife, her friend Esti, played by Rachel McAdams ('Spotlight') joins them in the kitchen. To Ronit's obvious puzzlement, then dismay, it becomes clear that Esti is Dovid's wife and the lover Ronit left behind when she ran away to New York as a teenager. The shock on Weisz's face when she makes the connection speaks volumes, in a film that discloses its characters' backstories only gradually, often through gesture, never through exposition. Such an approach is apt, given that 'Disobedience' is set in a community where people seldom need be explicit since everyone knows everything about everyone. It is an approach that demands a particularly subtle kind of acting if it is to succeed.
Since the scandal, Esti has been trying to cure herself of her preference for women by becoming a good wife to a good man and conforming to the expected role of a pious woman, including wearing the requisite wig. Meanwhile, Ronit's secular life in New York, in defiance of her father's rigid values, is tempered by a sense of guilt for hurting him, as his only child. In an especially ill-judged effort to fit in back home, Ronit briefly sports a wig, completely transforming herself from glamorously tousled to drably mousy.
The drama that ensues is a finely calibrated observation of the constraints imposed by the community and how the two women negotiate these. But it is more than this. Like 'Apostasy', 'Disobedience' suggests that identity is complex and shifting. Showing how difficult it is to reconcile sexuality and faith in a closed and highly disciplined, stratified community, it also alludes to other aspects of identity that are important to one's sense of self. Work, for example. Thus when Ronit has established that Esti still only fancies women and urges her to return to New York with her, Esti responds, 'But what would I do? I'm a teacher. That's what I am.'
Matthew Herbert's musical score offers a light, playful counterpoint to the otherwise sombre tone of 'Disobedience', which is underscored by cinematographer Danny Cohen's limited colour palette of various shades of grey and brown. Cohen lets very little light into the gloomy London streets and lanes along which Esti and Ronit walk, having briefly escaped their stifling community. They eventually end up in an anonymous hotel room, and re-consummate their affair. Until now their encounters have been stilted and muted, sometimes playful. Their re-kindled passion seems to point towards a new joyful life together. After all, we have already witnessed Esti's affectionate, sometimes dutiful, but hardly erotic, couplings with Dovid. But things are not that simple.
Dovid is portrayed as a decent, understanding man. In a key scene, about to have Rav's mantle passed on to him in the synagogue, he undergoes a crisis of faith. This echoes the film's opening sermon about free will, but rather too neatly. Dovid's crisis of confidence feels brittle and mannered, even manipulative, despite the sympathy his character solicits from the audience. This scene leads directly to the film's denouement – and rather scrappy ending – and it left me feeling slightly manipulated myself. That may well be the point, of course.
For a film with a theme of such melodramatic potential, it is performed in an almost obstinately low-key manner, played with such a straight bat that this potential is never exploited. The screen version of Alderman's novel is a measured, sombre production. It may be all the better for that, and indeed 'Disobedience' is most effective at depicting a tight-knit community where the unruffled surface conceals turbulent, churning emotions and long-held resentments seething just below. However, as a result of this austere way of examining complex emotions, the depth of feeling and anguish that are surely present in the situation of the two women is rarely palpable.