Ronit (Rachel Weisz) would never have known if someone had not told her, but while she was working as a photographer in New York, where she had made her home these past few years, her father (Anton Lesser) died back in London, where she was from. There was a lot of history there, or rather, there was not as much as there should have been since he had cut all ties with his daughter when she rejected the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community he had brought her up in, and it seems to her he did not even want her to know he had passed on, never reaching out to her in all that time. There was a reason for that, as Ronit had broken laws of their religion, not the laws of the land...
What's in a kiss? In Disobedience, based on Naomi Alderman's award-winning novel, there was quite a lot. Director Sebastián Lelio, fresh from his Oscar-winning success with A Fantastic Woman, once again demonstrated his interest in characters who would be the friend of the protagonist in most other movies, if indeed they were featured at all, and the two Jewish lesbians at the centre of this were fairly far out of the mainstream, especially when the details of their religious society were so faithfully replicated to craft as authentic a mood and milieu as possible. But if this was a hard sell to the more populist audiences, for the specialist ones it was welcomed a lot more warmly.
A lot of this was down to how sensitively handled the film was, appreciating that the book had been more scathing in its critique of how a strict upbringing can bring about an equally strict adulthood where freedom is not necessarily a given - though all of that was present in the adaptation here. It was just that Lelio, scripting with Rebecca Lenkiewicz, was sympathetic to all parties, appreciating that you did not just walk away from the world you were raised in lightly, and there were plenty of ties that even someone like Ronit, who has been content to leave it all behind completely, has to admit she cannot ignore, which is why, when she gets the word, she warily returns to London.
There she finds why she has been called, and it's not because her late father asked for her presence: he has not so much as remembered her in his will, to the point of claiming to be childless. Nope, it is her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams) who reached out, sensing that Ronit should really be told, and more than that, although she can barely admit it to herself, she would love to see her again. Although for the first half hour this played its cards close to its chest, we could tell by the stolen glances and half-smiles between the two leads that there was more to their past relationship than simply being good pals, and sure enough, when they are alone Esti makes her move and goes in for a kiss, the first we see of many. This simple act of affection speaks volumes, and quickly becomes the women's purest connection to one another.
A display between themselves that nobody else has any business intruding on, only of course someone sees them smooching in the street and soon Esti's job as a schoolteacher and her marriage to young Rabbi Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) are in jeopardy, which she may not be too upset about if she is honest. Therefore we had a traditional love triangle as seen countless times before, given the twist that it was between two Jewish lesbians and a holy man, not something that had cropped up too many times, if at all. These three performers were excellent, and crafted a tension between their characters, both sexual and guilty, that helped what was a largely quiet, muted experience of repression. Only in one scene were Ronit and Esti allowed to let loose with their passion, yes, kissing again, but going even further to properly address the joy they felt in one another's company that was so difficult to express anywhere else. It was a two-minute sequence, if that, but it resonated throughout, right up to a conclusion striking a note of hope for the couple without downplaying the complications, frustrating but probably realistic. Moody music by Matthew Herbert.
[Curzon's DVD has interviews with director and main cast, a production featurette and the trailer as extras.]