When you attend a film festival for the first time there is some trepidation in regards to the quality of the films screening there. Were they going to be up to your expectations? This is doubly so in regards to a festival of the reputation of TIFF. The Toronto International Film Festival is huge and world renowned. It attracts many films that will be buzzed about during Oscar season. For my first TIFF visit ever I had selected six different films to attend. With the first being Disobedience by Chilean director Sebastian Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, The Sacred Family), one of the country’s most revered directors in the post dictatorship era. It is a film not without star power as its two Rachels – McAdams and Weisz – attest to.
TIFF would be its big coming out party. Within the studio system there are not too many LGBTQ films. Hollywood has never been very queer inclined or friendly. When one does come out and stars two big actresses – like Todd Haynes’ Carol of a few years ago – then people sit up and take notice.
Based on the novel by Naomi Alderman, the lesbian love story is full of a quiet substance which the two female leads feed with their talent. The fact that it takes place in a community that does not allow any physical contact between unmarried men and women makes it all the more tricky. Female love within a devoutly patriarchal society adds plenty of layers to a already involved story.
Thirty-something Ronnie (Rachel Weisz – The Mummy, The Fountain) lives and works as a portrait photographer in New York City. She is originally from London. While shooting one day she receives a phone call. After some strange behaviour we see her boarding a plane and arriving in London. Ronit Krushka, her real name, arrives in her childhood neighbourhood. We learn she grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community and is back for a funeral. The death is of her father (Anton Lesser – from television’s Game of Thrones), the religious leader of this community. His loss is heavily felt by everyone. Though he and his daughter were estranged. Never stated, the estrangement was probably due to her rejection of the Orthodox life. Now she is back after a long absence to bury her last remaining immediate family member.
Her return has obviously disrupted the tight knit community. Including her two best friends, Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola – Laurel Canyon, American Hustle) and Esti (Rachel McAdams – Spotlight, Sherlock Holmes). After Dovid invites Ronit to stay with him and his wife at their home instead of going to a hotel, she discovers that Esti and Dovid are married. Once the shock wears off the three return to the friendship they once knew. For Esti and Ronit that means a romantic love. They initially resist their feelings for one another as Esti is married, but it wears them down. The disruption within the community and between Dovid and Esti has only just begun.
Nuance and undercurrent runs throughout this wonderful film. It does not move away from the hard questions in life. The life we are born into and the one we desire. It is shown to be a battle for many. Religion and the true self, something humans have struggled with throughout time. As such, it totally gets under your skin. Not the type of film that is going to do big box office, but the niche audience that will see it will love it.
The first English film for director Lelio and he affords himself very well, thank you. Showing a steady and confident hand despite the fact that the film is about a section of society he knows precious little of, the result is a film which is subtle, refined and quietly confident. Wisely he has chosen to focus on the details rather than go for a large over the top rendition. As such, with its controlled or muted ways, the story grabs you in its grip tightly and does not let go for the entirety. He avoids melodrama like the plague. Also, he does not make the Orthodox Jewish community an exotic one. Disobedience remains always respectful in tone and depiction.
Acting by the three main actors is exquisite. All have their plates full and handle their tricky characters ably. All bring to life in a very realistic way the twists and turns that Dovid, Esti and Ronit have to go through. It is not your typical romantic triangle they bring to the screen. The emotions the three are feeling remain boiling beneath the surface until they are allowed to explode. While I have always been convinced of Weisz’s talent I was undecided about McAdams’. Her Esti is unglamourous but intriguing. McAdams brings her to life with great sensitivity. This film went a long way towards convincing me that if given the right script she can act the hell out of it. Together with Weisz, when their characters resume an intimate relationship, the two do not trivialize a moment of it. Their scenes of an intimate nature are so raw they almost melt the film. Honest and bubbling over, like the rest of the film. The abandon between the two refers back to the question of allowing your true self out.
Happy to say my TIFF experience is off to a roaring start!