WORDS BY FRED PRYCE
A New York-based photographer, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) receives a call from her past: her father, an esteemable rabbi in London’s Orthodox Jewish community, has passed away, and she is invited back. She isn’t exactly welcome, however. Staying with her now-married old friends, Esti (Rachel McAdams) and Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a barely veiled secret comes to light - Esti and Ronit had a teenaged affair that was discovered by their shocked elders, driving Esti into the closet and Ronit to a different city. Her return threatens to unravel years of delicate cover-up and once again throw the conservative community into disarray, a taut situation that could lead to tense drama, driven by cultural discomfort and hidden desires.
So why doesn’t it uit work?
The filmmaking, though competent, may be its main obstacle to greatness. Director Sebastián Lelio ( Fantastic Woma) has chosen a muted, sterile look for the film, using a murky and grayish palette, and using a shallow focus for many shots that blurs out half the action. Adding to this is the quality of sound, recorded seemingly an inch away and emphasising every quavery breath and half-murmured conversation. Given that the wintry London backdrop doesn’t exactly add life to the proceedings, it only serves to dull potential rises in emotion, and create a cold sameness to most of the scenes. There were moments of genuine conflict, even comedy, where I felt the energy in the theatre visibly pick up — a Shabbat dinner interrupted by Ronit’s dry mockery of her religion, or a conversation between the trio heavy with unspoken truths — but this aesthetic sabotages the characters everytime this happens, with the most mundane of lines shown in close-up and whispered like a precious secret. Though this could just be an obvious parallel to Esti’s quietly repressed sexuality and the institution’s strict conformity, the drama longs for some more culturally-steeped wit, or some classical sweep (such as in the recent aro) hinted at by the occasionally stirring score.
At the least, the top-rate cast keeps things compelling whenever it threatens to drag. Weisz, always great, is the main draw as a free-willed and outspoken catalyst to change, maintaining an intelligent humour and dignity in every movement. McAdams (also always great) is saddled with the less interesting part, a reserved victim of circumstance who throws off years of sexual restraint, so it’s a testament to her immense talent that she matches Weisz step for step. The chemistry between the two is more than palpable, close to erupting from their first moments onscreen, and their brief moments of togetherness are infused with a sudden verve. This culminates in an extremely effective and intimate sex scene, one that speaks to the narrative in a clear way and is drawn from the pair’s agency rather than a voyeuristic perspective. Weisz
co-edited the scene to make sure it properly represented the characters, and her voice is clear throughout, breaking taboos you didn’t even know needed breaking.
The last act of the film is when it finally begins to pick up steam, but one can’t help but wish everything preceding the conclusion was better tied to it. The addition of Dovid’s voice to the narrative arcs is a well-needed breath of fresh air as he grapples with his faith, including a transcendent moment where the camera pushes in to a chorus of traditional music, and a brilliantly told sermon to the followers. But by the end, it doesn’t feel like any of these characters have had truly fleshed-out stories. It’s more like three half-formed narratives grappling for precedence scene-by-scene, though by the end these frustrations had almost been forgotten.