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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

Having broken through with 2013’s Gloria and won a foreign language Oscar earlier this year for A Fantastic Woman (2017), Chilean director Sebastián Lelio has established himself as a filmmaker with an empathetic eye for stories about female protagonist pushing against societal strictures. That makes him an understandable choice to adapt Naomi Alderman’s acclaimed 2006 novel Disobedience. Despite having no prior understanding of the North London Orthodox Jewish community in which it’s set, its story — detailing a forbidden same-sex love affair that has driven one of its characters into self-imposed secular exile in New York and the other into a dutiful marriage within a faith-based community — chimes thematically with his earlier work.[1]

As with A Fantastic Woman, death is the dramatic catalyst that disrupts the seemingly stable lives of its protagonists. In the opening scenes we see a respected rabbi collapse and die in the synagogue in the middle of delivering a sermon about the burden of having freedom of choice: an ironic opening given we soon learn that he disowned his own daughter, Ronit (played by Rachel Weisz), for the choices she was forced to make in her life. Now working as a photographer in New York, she clearly has unresolved issues relating to both her father and her faith, issues that instinctively convince her to make the trip home for the funeral, a move that surprises everyone in the community, not least because a collective decision had been taken not to tell her about her father’s passing. 

Right from the off, then, the film gives us a sense that all is not right and when Ronit arrives in London, her childhood home suddenly feels like alien territory. Lelio emphasises this by shooting the film’s North London locations the way one might a science fiction film: everything is cold, austere, unwelcoming. Weisz also looks very alien-like among the “frum” world of her relatives — or “very New York” as one character puts it. Weisz herself grew up in a London Jewish family not far from the film’s Hendon setting, yet Disobedience makes the most of her natural movie-star glamour to emphasise her alienated status in this aesthetically banal world — an effect not all that dissimilar to the scenes in Under the Skin (Dir. Johnathan Glazer, 2013) featuring Scarlett Johansson surreptitiously skulking around Glaswegian shopping centres.

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Lelio’s way into the cloistered orthodox world of Alderman’s book, however, was to think of it in terms of a fairytale or classic tragedy. Co-writing the script with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, co-writer of the Oscar-winning Ida (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013) and the forthcoming Colette (Dir. Wash Westmorland), Lelio includes multiple references to Othello and, in interviews, has said he views it as a story in which “a princess living in exile returns to the realm from which she was expelled because the king has died … and in these days of mourning and funeral rituals, all hell will break loose.”[2] It’s the “all hell will break loose” part that the film becomes primarily interested in exploring as Ronit becomes a disruptive force in the lives of Esti (Rachel McAdam) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivolo) — friends from her youth she’s shocked to discover are now married, not least because she and Esti were once involved with each other.

The film hinges on the reigniting of those teenage passions and, as it morphs into more of a love triangle story, Ronit and Esti’s affair forces the former to confront her estrangement from her late father while Esti has to weigh up the cost of being true to her sexuality. This immediately sets the film up as another movie about the tragedy of being gay, a trope stretching back to early Hollywood portrayals of lesbian characters such as The Children’s Hour (Dir. William Wyler, 1961), The Fox (Dir. Mark Rydell) and The Killing of Sister George (Dir. Robert Aldrich, 1968) — films in which madness and death prevail. But as Lelio gradually reveals, Disobedience is really a film about Esti pulling the pin on her old life, forcing her to be more proactive in terms of how she lives it. That doesn’t necessarily make for a happy ending, but nor does it rule out the possibility of one in the near future.

On a more positive note, Disobedience is another high-profile example of the increased visibility of sapphic storylines in polished prestige cinema, something that’s been happening with increased regularity since the early 2000s, when Mulholland Drive (Dir. David Lynch, 2000), Frida (Dir. Julie Taymor, 2002) and The Hours (Dir. Stephen Daldry, 2002) saw lesbian characters emerge from the rawer, more experimental indie films of the 1990s New Queer Cinema movement and, consequently, were suddenly being played by big movie stars like Meryl Streep. That’s a trend that has continued as some of the pioneering directors of that movement, such as Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, 1998) and Todd Haynes (Poison, 1991) have edged into the mainstream with, respectively, the multi-Oscar-nominated likes of The Kids Are All Right (2010) and Carol (2015). But it’s also down to female stars on a quest for complex characters finding them in queer-themed movies. As the producer as well the star of Disobedience, Weisz has said she read a lot of lesbian literature in search of good roles she could play and it’s perhaps no coincidence she also plays a lesbian character in The Favourite (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) alongside Olivia Colman and Emma Stone, who herself recently played tennis star Billy Jean King in the under-rated Battle of the Sexes (Dir: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2017).[3] Keira Knightley, meanwhile, does some of her best work in the aforementioned Colette (Dir. Wash Westmoreland, 2018), another film about a woman pushing back against the restrictions of the patriarchy. As for Lelio, he’s not changing direction anytime soon. He’s already shot an English language remake of Gloria (retitled Gloria Bell) with Julianne Moore.

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic, The Scotsman

November 2018


[1]Nick James, No Place Like Home, Sight & Sound, December 2018, pp 44

[2] ibid.

[3] Rachel Weisz, quoted in “Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams Discuss the 'Forbidden Love Story' in ‘Disobedience’”, Variety, https://variety.com/video/rach...

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