REVIEW: Disobedience (2018)

Directed by: Sebastián Lelio
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola

Written by Ryan Morris

There’s a coldness to the core of Disobedience, Sebastián Lelio’s new romantic drama film,  released months ago across the pond but has only just begun screening in a small number of UK cinemas this week. Its colour palette defined by greys and a general muteness, its characters bundled in coats and walking through clouded cities. Lelio seems to want us to fight to reach the heart of his film – a heart that is unquestionably there, just not always in reach. It makes for gripping, ultimately highly satisfying viewing, even if this battle to embrace the film’s emotional side threatens to hold you at a distance until you can break through the surface and revel in the surplus of complex feeling that awaits you underneath.

Rachel Weisz is Ronit Krushka, a New York City photographer called back to London when her father, a Jewish teacher, dies suddenly. Her return to her roots isn’t quite a happy reunion though, as we slowly come to learn than Ronit was shunned from the community for reasons not yet clear. As she reunites with former friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and his wife Esti (Rachel McAdams), we begin to piece together the full story – Ronit and Esti once shared an attraction, a spark the community long thought in the past but very much one that threatens to reignite with their re-immersion into each other’s lives.

Lelio’s script, co-written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz and adapted from Naomi Alderman’s source novel, walks the fine line between preachy and powerful. Disobedience is tackling some weighty subject matter here, concerning itself with themes of religion, sexuality and identity, but the film never makes the mistake of landing as judgemental. It would be easy for Lelio to point the finger at the Jewish community at the core of the film, but he wisely sidesteps the wide-reaching blame in favour of his own characters, resulting in a piece more impassioned than it is accusatory. Ronit and Esti are instantly compelling people, and watching their connection grow from former flames catching eyes in a crowded room to a night of uninterrupted, unmistakeable passion as if the world is theirs and no-one else’s, is both engaging and moving. By avoiding an overwhelming sense of anger or judgment, Lelio finds something notably more personal and microscopic. It’s a relationship that feels lived in, one we desperately want to succeed, even if we know it probably isn’t possible.

This very much comes down to two main factors: the way the film shifts its thematic core as it progresses, and the lead performances from Weisz and McAdams. We’ll start with the former. Disobedience begins on reliable footing, as it pokes into the kind of themes already mentioned here. It quietly establishes the differences in sexuality between Ronit and Esti, exploring them as people within their attraction to each other. It spends time looking at Ronit’s rebuttal of religion, her adamant refusal to conform to what the Jewish community expects of her. It uses these two elements to mark her character, but allows her to be defined by more than that – her determination and her respect for those she cares for are the aspects to her character remember more clearly.

As the film pushes forward, though, Lelio starts to dive deeper into Esti’s marriage with Dovid, finding there a powerful, surprising contemplation on free will and the battle between the lives we ought to lead and the ones we want to. The film tackles such topics in thoughtful ways, dedicating ample time to Esti’s uncertainty rather than posing a simple question and having her confidently resolve it. Sometimes our choices are difficult and sometimes we don’t have all the answers, Disobedience understands this and embraces it. Watching Esti’s struggle here isn’t always easy viewing, especially coupled with a reveal that drops at the end of the second act and threatens to derail both relationships in her life, but it’s persistently riveting in how it portrays her journey. What begins on solid, if familiar, ground has unfolded into something more thematically complex and daring than we perhaps anticipated, and the film is all the richer for it.

Carrying the weight of such dense material are Rachels Weisz and McAdams, both of whom give stunning, deeply felt performances. McAdams is given the quieter role of the two, but she twists this calmness into something bigger than her own character. There’s a history to Esti that McAdams makes us feel, transforming her from victim to empowerment. Weisz has the showier material of the two, mostly due to Ronit’s fiery personality and the circumstances she finds herself in here, but she nonetheless demonstrates control and command. By turns dormant and explosive, Weisz leads from the front and finds a compelling protagonist in Ronit. Both women very clearly feel the burdens of their characters, and both use this to give performances that rank with the best of the year.

That Disobedience succeeds in finding an ending that both refuses to take the easy options and feels entirely satisfying is merely a bonus on top of what is an already rich, complex study of character. It’s perhaps easy to argue that the film lacks the confidence early on that it wears on its sleeve by the end, but this growth can be seen as fundamental to the narrative pathway Disobedience has chosen to charter – it binds itself to its characters and allows itself to reflect what they exude. This is an intelligent romantic drama, with more on its mind than simple “will they / won’t they” dynamics. It’s a story worth telling, told well. You can’t really ask for much more than that.

 

RYAN’S VERDICT:

4

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INTERVIEW: Jaron Albertin

Interviewed by Fiona Underhill

For our latest Sunday Spotlight interview, Fiona had the fantastic opportunity to chat with director Jaron Albertin, whose feature-film debut released earlier this week (9th November) in New York and Los Angeles after debuting it Zurich Film Festival last year.


FU: I want to ask you about the casting of Alessandro Nivola first of all, I notice that you saw him in the production of The Elephant Man in London (with Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson), I also saw that production, what was it about that performance that led you to want to cast Alessandro?

JA: There wasn’t really anything in that performance at all, but we met afterwards and I did research, I watched everything I could find of his. My producer linked us up and she really rated him – he just got the character. I had never seen him in a role like this, so there was some hesitation there, but I just think he’s a wonderfully underrated actor [FU: I agree]. He was really into the idea of taking it on. What he had to say about it and his approach to it. I knew that, in a way, this film is so sparse, there’s not a lot of dialogue and the nuance that he had to get a hold of – I feel like he did a great job. He’s just a great guy too.

 

FU: What about Johnny Knoxville – I have to ask you how that came about?! I think it’s so interesting that he’s playing the voice of reason in the film and that’s not something you often connect with Johnny Knoxville.

JA: I thought he did a great job, actually. He’s from the South, he’s playing this foreman – working class, blue collar, I think he can pull it off – it’s kind of his world. He was the last person to come on board. We were having a tricky time with our financing, they needed somebody with a name. My producer knows him and knows that he’s been wanting to do more dramatic roles, so we put it in front of him. Initially, I was like (snorts incredulously) “Johnny Knoxville?! From Jackass?!” I was 14 when that came out and I was crashing balls over my head. But he was part of the reason why the movie got made, really. That was the primary reason, but then when we started to talk about it … he sucks you in, he has gravity.

 

 

FU: One of my favourite scenes in the film actually is when Ed (Knoxville) is talking to Joel (Nivola’s character) at the leaving party and he’s comforting Joel and kind of addressing themes of toxic masculinity, by saying “it’s OK to feel your feelings, it’s OK to give into them” and then the next second Ed is off getting a lapdance…

JA: It’s kind of rough, it’s off-the-cuff – it’s not an eloquent speech, but there’s something parallel to the end lines, about sleeping and waking, there’s something about him, in a backwards way, gets what Joel is feeling. It’s a direct line in to Joel and I think it works.

 

 

FU: And what about the kids – there is obviously an amazing performance from Eli Haley who plays one of the central roles – Will, but I also really, really liked his friend Carla (Phoebe Young) who talks to him about superheroes and says she wants to be the huntress. How did you go about casting but also working with the kids, with what are quite mature themes, I always wonder when you’re working with kids in a film that’s designed for adults, how do you not traumatise them, basically?

JA: I think you try to cast kids who inherently get it or understand it, it’s just an organic thing – the more they start to “act”, or they get a sense of what acting is, the more it starts to feel false. It’s got to be natural, as a kid, it’s the only way. You can’t look at a kid and see them as professional actors, I mean you can if they’re singing, dancing, jazz hands, Mickey Mouse Club. But when it comes to something like this, Eli I don’t think he’d ever read the script, I think it was day-to-day to him. His relationship with Alessandro – he was a little afraid of him and I think we just kept it as natural as we could. You don’t want too many takes, you try to get things quickly. But over the course of the film, new dynamics start to take hold and then people become your peers, then you feel like you’ve got to project something else onto these people, new relationships build and that directly manifests itself on screen, those natural relationships that you try to have. Particularly when the kids were together, with who is the alpha kid or whatever, you have to implement that feeling in a certain way because of the dynamic of the kids, which has nothing to do with the roles at all. It’s tricky – you never know what’s going to happen. Not a lot’s said. Eli doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes of the film. 

 

FU: I think the first time Will speaks is when he has a paper bag on his head and that gives him the confidence to use his voice…

JA: Yeah and he doesn’t really move a lot either. He’s basically placid and sat or in a corner the entire time. There’s only two scenes where he’s walking. I was trying to cut out any part where he was walking or moving because it gave a different perspective on him, which is kind of strange to think about, that he’s just this mass, immobile.

 

FU: I really loved the cinematography, particularly the overhead shots, like the ones that were from the POV of a bird’s wing. I’m wondering how you achieved those shots and why you used them – what were you trying to say with them?

JA: I think I have a perspective on depressed realities alongside nature. Where you have the claustrophobia of the internal, you live without stepping back and looking at the bigger picture or the magic of what the natural world is. I grew up in a small potato-picking, hick town in Northern British Columbia, I went to school with First Nations kids and everyone would be drinking or huffing glue and living in this beautiful environment, but really repressed. But if you step back and look at the world, the reality of nature is so beautiful but we were sort of stuck. So Eli being trapped in his own body and the claustrophobia of that and then seeing this bird, it’s this idea of being able to project yourself onto nature, with the magic up and there and the freedom – it’s that contrast. Nature is unknown and random and scary but it gives us answers. We had a helicopter to shoot that, my producer has a relationship with one of the guys who does commercial shoots – a cowboy renegade helicopter pilot came up and I think we had an hour and a half, which in a way really lifted the film, kind of opened it up, we put the wing in afterwards.

 

FU: So you shot in upstate New York?

JA: Yes – two hours out of Albany, small town called Johnstown, an old gambling town, a beautiful old town, but there’s nothing there. They’ve got a great old town hall, but it’s all boarded up. It’s strange, you’re outside of New York, but you have communities that have nothing, they’ve sucked the industry out of everywhere and there’s no respect for anything. I mean, that’s a little depressing, but that was the case in Johnstown.

 

FU: I can think of 8 films that have come out in the last year dealing with rural poverty in America and I’m wondering if it’s subconsciously to do with trying to understand Trump voters or if that was far from your mind?

JA: It’s an interesting question, because to me: No. The rural poverty wasn’t something that was one of the themes for me at all. It’s more relatable for me, I wanted to shoot this film in the interior of BC in Canada and we just couldn’t do it because of practicalities. It’s where I grew up. And there, it doesn’t have the same social, political connotations. Things are rural, things are depressed, but it just is.

 

FU: I really liked the music, particularly in a scene where Joel stops his truck and goes off into a field to have a slash, there’s this haunting, almost choral music over it and I’m wondering what choices you made about the music and why?

JA: That song is by Julianna Barwick and I had that song in mind when we cut the scene, so that song was always in there. But I wanted at times, the music to be meditative, almost a contrast to what we are seeing. There’s a lot going on in that shot, the telephone poles warp and bend. He’s walking and  disappearing – something is compulsively driving him on. That’s a metaphor for a feeling of being isolated, not being able to communicate, to not be understood, to feel like you’re alone.

The music changed over time. I wanted something sparse, I wanted the music to be in situation for most of it, but there’s some abstract stuff. We find this kid called Clem Leek who lives in Chicago, he’s actually English, he’s brilliant. His piano music, it just connected, it just fit. The music is always tough, trying to limit it, trying to tell the story without it as much as you can without it and see how that works.

 

JC: Especially when you’re from a music video background?

JA: Yeah I moved to London in 2007 and made music videos there for 8 years, that was my background. Then I moved to New York about 5 years ago. But for this, it wasn’t easy – it’s not a film that actually demands music, in a way. So, for me, it was finding a certain type of music that matched and that took a while.


 

Weightless opened in New York and Los Angeles on Friday 9th November, and we’ll have a review up on our site in the very near future – but for now, take a look at the film’s trailer below!

Brand New UK Trailer for ‘You Were Never Really Here’ Released

“A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening”

You can read our full review of the film HERE

Directed By: Lynne Ramsay

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette

Release Date: March 9th, 2018

You Were Never Really Here

Year: TBC, but likely 2018
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette

Written by Sarah Buddery

After a Best Actor nomination for ‘Walk the Line’ (2005), followed by being shamefully overlooked for his gorgeously tender performance in 2013’s ‘Her’, Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t exactly be put into the category of ‘underrated’, however nor is he considered as a bankable box office draw; which is a real shame. One of the most consistently watchable actors, Phoenix has a history for playing dark and troubled characters – his one in ‘You Were Never Really Here’ being no different – so some may consider him to be “one note”. However when he plays them this well, it isn’t exactly a bad thing!

The story is as vague in its actualisation as it is in the IMDb description, but essentially it follows ‘Joe’ played by Phoenix, an enforcer of undisclosed authority, who is sent to rescue an underage girl who has been kidnapped and used in the sex trade. Haunted by the visions of his childhood abuse, Joe is deeply troubled, teetering constantly on the brink of psychosis. Essentially a hitman thriller, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ manages to pack an awful lot of hits into its short runtime, as well as an uncomfortably in-depth exploration of the man perpetrating them.   

Owing a great deal to the 1976 masterpiece ‘Taxi Driver’, Joaquin Phoenix manages to channel the ghost of Travis Bickle, and to electrifying effect. Near enough the entire runtime is spent with his character, and whilst at times the story feels cold and distant, there is a great deal of pity for this character, despite his brutal nature. Similarly in the aforementioned ‘Taxi Driver’, we spent so much time with DeNiro’s iconic character, and that idea of being so closely aligned with a psychopath, makes for a totally thrilling experience. Whereas ‘Taxi Driver’ had the perfect amount of slow-burning tension, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ doesn’t wait long for the bursts of violence, and the brutality is orchestrated to perfection.

Early on there is a scene which is near silent and switches to the perspective of CCTV cameras within a house. We see Joe moving from room to room, dispatching various heavies, and for all its brutality, it is equally mesmerising to watch. The sound design of this film is absolutely stunning, perfectly utilising silence when needed and punctuating this with sudden and deafening bursts of noise and chaos. The music, from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is jarring, jangling, eerie, utterly nerve-shredding and completely amazing, suiting the tone of the film perfectly, and contributing to that constant sense of unease.

Whilst it is easy to connect, although not empathise, with the central character, the story does feel somewhat distant at times. Perhaps this is intentional and somehow represents that emotional disconnect the character feels from the atrocities he is committing, but it does make it a difficult watch in places.

That being said, ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is truly “edge of your seat” stuff, and whilst the comparisons with ‘Taxi Driver’ kind of write themselves, it is still amazing on its own merit. Joaquin Phoenix gives an electric, and possibly career-best performance as the troubled hitman, and only time will tell if this will be the year he receives a much-deserved nomination, or the year he is once again shamefully overlooked. Awards aside however, this is one of the most genuinely thrilling films in a long time, and one which packs a mean punch into a relatively short space. An explosive, and unmissable film.

Sarah’s Rating: 8.8 out of 10