Sydney Film Festival Review: Disobedience (UK/USA, 2018) is a subtly compelling look into hidden passions and forbidden love

To say that the expectations for this film are quite high is quite superfluous, but it has to be said nonetheless. We have Rachel Weisz, one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood, who’s had a great run of recent films ever since starring in the weird and sweet quasi-dystopian romance The Lobster, and still going strong.

We also have Rachel McAdams, who’s having a great year in 2018, with the film in question as well as the surprise comedy hit Game Night. And we have the Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, who has made great films like the 2013 drama, Gloria (which is being remade by Lelio himself, starring Julianne Moore) and is fresh off his acclaimed Oscar-winning hit, A Fantastic Woman.

And last but definitely not least, we have the underappreciated chameleon-like actor, Pollux Troy Alessandro Nivola. Ever since the times playing Nicolas Cage‘s brother in John Woo‘s action extravaganza Face/Off, he’s gone off in indie darlings like Junebug, A Most Violent Year, The Neon Demon and most recently, You Were Never Really Here (also showing at Sydney Film Fest).

With all that talent in the pool, how can one not be excited by this film? Will Disobedience live up to the hype?

Weisz stars as Ronit Krushka, a shunned woman who works as a photographer living in New York. She lives up a bit of a meaningless existence consisting of work, mindless drinking and sexual dalliance. She receives a message from her home in London, saying that her estranged father had passed away.

Ronit returns to her hometown, which involves the same Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her decades earlier for her past decisions. Her return results in awkward conversations with her relatives, the dedicated Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) and most of all, Esti (Rachel McAdams), wife of Dovid.

Feeling more out of place than ever and finding out that her father had not lent her any consideration in his obituary or his will, Ronit decides to return back to New York after going to her childhood home. As Esti takes her there, they bond over their past friendship until something rekindles between them. Something that might put their lives and those around them in jeopardy.

Before I get into reviewing Disobedience, I must say this: I didn’t like Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman. The main reason is because the film never delves into its main character and tries to bring its point across by bombarding plot conflicts on its main lead ad nauseum that it becomes baffling and eventually boring. If Lelio got us to know the main lead a little better, then it would’ve been a lot easier for the audience to go along with.

In the case of Disobedience, the film takes its time to delve into its characters and how they react to their daily lives, through visual storytelling and little reliance on verbal exposition.

In the case of the impulsive Ronit, we see through a montage of her day-to-day life what she does and it tells in a concise fashion of what her flaws and predicaments are. In the case of the emotionally repressed Esti, her character is gradually revealed throughout the film through what she does that is kept secret from her community (like taking off her wig) until she becomes more emotive. Whereas in the case of Dovid, his dedication to his faith is reflected through all of his actions, although it is repressive of how he really feels, causing conflicting interests.

The striking yet surprisingly muted cinematography by Danny Cohen, the moody costume design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux and the majestically conducive musical score by Matthew Hubert certainly reflect the gradually brimming passion of the story. Hubert’s score in particular strikes chords that sounds like birds calling, like a beautifully composed swan song.

Speaking of beautifully composed, the performances from its three leads are fantastic. Weisz, who usually plays characters that inert with their emotions, plays a more open personality (in comparison to Esti) during the parts where she converses with the community, especially in a barbed dinner sequence where the plot thickens. She convinces with her anger and hostility and also gets a chance to convey inner emotions like she does best, like in a ice-rink sequence, that is show in a simple medium shot, following her.

McAdams usually plays more extrovert characters, but in the case of Disobedience, she plays Esti as a woman trapped in her own facade and she does it convincingly. Lelio also never makes her performance appear explicit nor does he provide any spoon-feeding to the audience. Nivola, who is an actor who almost appears unrecognizable in every film he stars in, gives a great performance as a man who is trapped between his friendship between Ronit and Esti and his dedication to his faith.

In the case of its flaws, there is one musical choice, being Love Song by The Cure, that brings the film down to a fault. While it does convey the past nature between the female leads quite well, the song choice itself is too on-the-nose in what it tries to foreshadow how the characters currently feel, and it makes the end credits feel a little jarring when they come up.

As for the sex scene itself, the execution does veer wildly between tasteful and exploitative. When the scene relies more on the expressions of the actresses, it succeeds in providing a satisfying conclusion with what the characters went through prior, particularly in the case of Esti. But when it comes to the actions during the scene, it veers towards something more strikingly prurient, which can turn some audiences off. Granted, the shots that were chosen to linger (like a shot looking down on Ronit) don’t last long as they could have been (as Weisz oversaw the editing of the scene), it is quite noticeable that the gaze is still prevalent.

Overall, Disobedience is a compelling understated drama that seethes with passion thanks to Lelio’s assured direction, compelling storytelling and fantastic performances from the three talented leads. Recommended.


Disobedience is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival 2018, with several screenings from June 6th. For tickets and more details, head HERE.


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Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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