“Hey, film stars, we’re frum, not frumps,” ran the headline to Michelle St Morris’s 2017 column in the Jewish Chronicle. A Jewish resident of Hendon in North London, St Morris was cross about the filming of Disobedience going on in her community. The movie, which was released this month, stars Rachel McAdams as Esti, an Orthodox Jewish woman, and Rachel Weisz as Ronit, the prodigal daughter who returns home after her father, the rabbi, dies. She left the fold after a teenage entanglement with Esti and has not been home since. Now a non-Orthodox photographer in New York, she returns to find Esti married to Dovid. The trio had been best friends as kids. Ronit’s return threatens the equilibrium of the marriage and the honor of her father’s mourning.
“Frum” is a Yiddish word for a devout Jew, and Esti is certainly frum. St Morris’s objection was that Disobedience turns Esti into caricature by putting her into the “frumpiest clothes and the saddest brown wig” she’d ever seen. St Morris “may know one or two people who dress like McAdams’s character on a bad day, or on their way to the mikveh.” But by expressing Esti’s sadness through her appearance, St Morris felt that Disobedience does wrong by Hendon’s Orthodox community. More seriously, she also saw “fake ‘forbidden signs’ in Hebrew the movie squad had hung up on shop windows,” of the kind she has seen in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim but never in North London.
St Morris’s article raises interesting questions. It’s a dispatch from the edge of a production in which her own life and neighborhood were being reflected, but ambivalently. Orthodox Jews don’t often see themselves on the big screen. Naomi Alderman’s book of the same name, which was the movie’s source text, itself represented a huge moment of cultural visibility (the novel won the Orange Award for New Writers and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award). The novel is the work of a woman who grew up in the community it depicts, but Alderman became more uncertain about her faith as she wrote. In 2016 she told Claire Armistead in the Guardian that, “I went into the novel religious and by the end I wasn’t. I wrote myself out of it.”
At the heart of Disobedience is—as the press has made much of—a powerful erotic connection between Ronit and Esti. As St Morris could not have known, writing a year before the movie’s release, Esti is closeted and depressed. Neither she nor Ronit has pursued lesbian relationships since their youthful liaison, but once back in each other’s orbit Esti is pulled into Ronit like a comet into a gravitational field. McAdams’s turn as a repressed lesbian is excellent. Lesbian sex is about 60 percent eye contact, in my experience, and before there’s any hint of getting naked Esti, walking down the street, turns to give Ronit a look that leaves no doubt as to where this is going. The sex scene itself—there is only one—is very well done. The long shot of Esti in orgasm, aimed at her face and arching neck, feels like the movie’s redemptive core.
McAdams feels like an uncanny piece of casting, at least to me, who grew up nearby, though secular, in North London. A movie star in Hendon!* But her accent is pretty good, and her Hollywood-ishness does not distract. Her husband Dovid, played by Alessandro Nivola, might be the true standout here. He’s an American actor but his London accent—with which he speaks quietly, full of sober intensity—is flawless, eerily so. Dovid is nominated by the shul to inherit Ronit’s father’s position as rabbi. When he learns that Esti needs to reconsider her entire marriage in the wake of Ronit’s return, we see him go on a journey that is as much about his understanding of the Torah as it is about human relationships. Perhaps they are one and the same, for him. Aside from the big stars, Disobedience is full of very familiar faces from British television: Anton Lesser as Rav Krushka, Steve Furst as Gideon Rigler, Allan Corduner as Ronit’s uncle Moshe Hartog.
Weisz is the film’s creator. She went looking for a book with two interesting female leads, and then took it to producer Frida Torresblanco. She in turn recommended Chilean director Sebastián Lelio (Gloria, A Fantastic Woman), who co-wrote the script with British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Her Naked Skin). Weisz’s character Ronit technically disturbs the peace of Hendon, but in the narrative she acts as a stable element. Rather, it is Esti who reacts to her presence, and Esti’s transgression that makes the story of Disobedience. Weisz plays her role of grieving, conflicted daughter with appropriate subtlety. She knows she has a certain outsized power here, and teeters on the brink of inviting Esti to come away with her in a way that implies both a profound conscience and a need for independence from her home.
Some of the movie’s best moments show Ronit visiting the bakeries of her youth, ordering apple strudel and racing back in time through sense-memory. Manohla Dargis called Disobedience “drained of oxygen” in her New York Times review, because so much of the film takes place in closed environments: houses, shul, school, streets where everybody is noting your behavior. But we can also interpret that insularity as intimacy. Religious communities are by their nature encircled by a defended boundary, especially those surviving amid secular societies. Inside their walls exist love, connection, and strength.
Although Disobedience is marketed under the tagline “Love is an act of defiance,” its execution has managed to evade a crude rendering of Esti’s desire as the opposite of her Judaism. When she says that the word of Hashem is her life, it sounds true, is true. The final message of Disobedience—delivered inside shul itself—is that we are all free to choose. Truly devout Jewish life is not about coercion or denial of self. I have little insight into what the Orthodox community will make of the movie, but I hope that Michelle St Morris will see it and write down her thoughts.
*This article originally stated that McAdams is American. She is Canadian. We regret the error.