We meet Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) at a New York photo shoot. With a small analog camera hanging from her neck, she asks her subject, an old, bearded man covered in tattoos, about his life waiting for the perfect shot. She likes his smile. And then from behind her, an assistant calls for her with a concerned look. Ronit’s father is dead, and she has to go back to England.
Arriving at the house back in England, Ronit sees her old friend, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and goes to hug him, but she can’t. She remembers that she’s back in the orthodox community from which she left years ago, receiving stares of surprise and concern from everyone at the wake. In another surprise, she soon learns that Dovid married their other best friend from years ago, Esti (Rachel McAdams), although it isn’t entirely clear why this is surprising.
Days pass, and Ronit’s impact on the community grows. This tight Jewish community, which has just lost one of its most influential leaders, treat Ronit’s re-entrance as a threat. But the film doesn’t betray why this is until the very last minute. Esti and Ronit are visiting Ronit’s family home to collect her belongings when they finally kiss in an emotionally tense moment. It turns out Ronit left all those years ago because her father found the two of them together, and she couldn’t bear the thought of some kind of rehabilitative marriage, the same kind of rehabilitative marriage that Esti had when she couldn’t leave.
Disobedience succeeds on the performances of the Rachels. One of the perennial challenges of domestic dramas is to make decades-old relationships feel lived in. McAdams does the heavy lifting here to make that work because she has to sell her sexless devotion to her husband and the passionate love towards Ronit. Weisz though does something equally challenging as she has to demonstrate her relationship to a dead man.
Over this romantic drama hangs Ronit’s father and the entirety of orthodox Judaism because the tradition and the community aren’t all bad. Even Ronit still demonstrates moments of faith as the film goes on, and Dovid’s climactic moment at the end of the film is the most potent statement on the importance of serious faith the film has. That’s a challenging balance to pull off, but Disobedience succeeds.