Disobedience is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel about forbidden, lesbian love in orthodox Jewish north London, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams and I so wanted to root for the film and its characters. Go for it, women! Smash the patriarchy that says you must always be the object of sexual desire and never the subject! I’ll put you up, if needs be. I have a spare bedroom and it’s all yours! But while this should be a searing, Brokeback Mountain-style drama about love, longing and repression it just plods along, often clumsily. I didn’t root or not root as in the end it was impossible to much care.
The film opens in London with a rabbi (Anton Lesser) giving a sermon in a synagogue before dropping dead. The sermon had been about free will and choice, so spells out the film’s theme, which immediately jars. We can’t work this out for ourselves? We next cut to New York to meet his estranged daughter, Ronit (Weisz), who fled her childhood home some years ago and is now an arty photographer. On hearing the news of her father’s death she immediately has sex with a stranger in a toilet, which is never a good sign. She has freedom but not happiness or connection. That is what is being spelled out here.
Ronit returns to London and to Hendon, I think, although some of this was filmed in Golders Green, where I was brought up, as I recognised Hoop Lane and maybe also Golders Hill Park with its depressing mini-zoo. (The depressing mini-zoo isn’t shown but every north London Jew knows it is there; there are no flies on us.) She appears on the doorstep of her childhood friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), who was her father’s protégé. She is like an exotic bird among pigeons with her short leather skirts and cigarettes and gorgeous tousled hair. She teases Dovid about being married but then learns whom he has married. His wife is their other childhood friend, Esti (McAdams), who now wears the sheitel and frumpy frum clothes, although you can still tell there is a beautiful woman under there. There are no flies on us, as already stated. It’s obvious that Ronit and Esti were more than just mates back in the day, and it’s why Ronit had to leave. Will their affair be rekindled? As the poster shows them kissing, I think we know the answer to that.
The book was optioned by Weisz herself, and this is directed by Sebastian Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman), who does bring a sense of stifled claustrophobia, but it’s also peculiarly bloodless. Eventually, after Ronit and Esti have circled each other warily, kissed a bit, questioned each other’s choices — you just want to be ‘a good wife and push out seven children?’ queries Ronit — there is a passionate encounter in a hotel room. It is shot in close-up and involves spit-sharing, hands in pants, Esti tearing off her wig and it should be explosive, but it’s peculiarly bloodless too. Still trying to work out why, but the fact that there is little sexual chemistry between the pair doesn’t help, plus the story isn’t told with any urgency. Here are two people who may be forced to deny the greatest passion they will ever know and it’s all so sloooooow. Scenes are included that don’t progress the narrative in any way. I can’t tell you how many times we have to watch Ronit lugging suitcases either up or down stairs. And the characters don’t properly exist outside their predicament. We don’t get much sense, for instance, of what Ronit has given up or Esti may have to give up, as the community is barely drawn. The acting is ferocious and good in the main, but there is a decade age difference between the two leads, which is hard to ignore, and neither character is awarded sufficient depth or yearning.
There can never be any completely happy endings with these scenarios. When it’s true identity vs. sense of belonging one or the other has to be sacrificed. But this ending is so betwixt and between it is plain baffling. So this is a missed opportunity, alas. There are films about gay men and orthodox Jewry — Torch Song Trilogy, Eyes Wide Open, Man is a Woman — but almost none about gay women, which makes it the love that dare not speak it’s name, but even more so. Such a pity this film can’t make us care.