Rachel Weisz plays Ronit, a New York-based photographer who has just learned that her estranged father, a leading rabbi in a conservative Jewish community in London, has died. Having spent an unspecified period away from the community – at least ten years – Ronit flies home to pay her respects. Here she reconnects with two old friends: Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), now a rabbi himself, and Esti (Rachel McAdams), who shocks Ronit with the news that she and Dovid are now married.
The marketing for Disobedience makes it clear that Ronit and Esti have a same-sex affair, but the film takes its time in explaining how, and why, this comes to pass. But while the allure of watching two of cinema's most beautiful women locking lips may be irresistible, what happens between Ronit and Esti transcends mere prurience and ends up a celebration of identity and personal freedom.
Weisz is infallible, as always. I can think of no better actress to embody the urbane but tender Ronit. (And neither could Weisz, apparently, as she's a producer on the film.) McAdams, on the other hand, is no one's first choice to play a British lesbian Orthodox Jew. (Alexis Zegerman from Happy-Go-Lucky would have been a better fit.) But since she clearly had to work harder to make her character believable, she winds up delivering a career-best performance. Likewise, the Boston-born Nivola is an unlikely London rabbi, but his quiet work surprises with its thoughtfulness. All three actors play thoroughly unique characters; all three are excellent.
Disobedience delicately depicts Orthodox Judaism as both beautiful tradition and narrow-minded cult. The only thing lacking in the film – and it's a big thing – is a convincing argument as to why Esti might want to remain with her community, rather than gallivant off to New York with Ronit. It's clear that she knows no other life, but she's obviously unhappy with the strict rules of her faith – why stay, once given the opportunity to leave? I just couldn't believe why she would be at all conflicted. It's not McAdams's fault: the script should have suggested a strong local support system for her, or at least a passionate connection to her religion. It's the one flaw in an otherwise fantastic, deeply human film.