Disobedience star Rachel Weisz: ‘There are many like Esti out there’
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Disobedience star Rachel Weisz: ‘There are many like Esti out there’

The Oscar-winning actress stars with Rachel McAdams in the film adaptation of Naomi Alderman's controversial book, exploring the taboo of lesbian love in the Orthodox community

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

When faith clashes with sexuality, what happens to someone who finds themselves attracted to the same sex, but still wants to adhere to a religious life?

That moral dilemma is explored in a “profoundly loving way” in the screen adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s critically-acclaimed novel, Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, which opens in cinemas on Friday.

Chilean director Sebastián Lelio brings to life the story of Ronit (played by Weisz), a rabbi’s daughter and proverbial black sheep of the community, who swaps her claustrophobic life in north London for New York, after a scandalous transgression during her youth.

But upon learning of her father’s death, its back to that community she must go, confronting the ghosts of her past along the way.

Among them are Esti (McAdams), now the wife of her strictly Orthodox cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) and the woman with whom she shared an illicit attraction in her teenage years.

Distant at first, the pair soon rediscover their desire for one another
and embark on a passionate affair that threatens to completely unravel both their lives.

Rachel Weisz stars and produces the film adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s critically-acclaimed book

When Alderman’s literary debut was published to great acclaim in 2006 – earning her both the Orange Award for New Writers and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award – it certainly caused ripples within the community she had written about, while cementing her own decision to leave behind life as a practising Jew.

But while it may have been controversial in its subject matter, Disobedience was wholly sensitive in its portrayal of the Orthodox community and the dilemma faced by women like Esti, says Weisz, who also produced the film after optioning its rights four years ago.

The 48-year-old Oscar-winning actress tells me: “Naomi grew up inside of that community and has since left it, but her book is an incredibly loving portrait of spirituality and shows just how nourishing Orthodoxy can be for those living in that community.

“But then it poses this conundrum – what if you are lesbian, what do you do then? How can you have both spirituality and love? It seems that you can’t really, or it’s very hard. You certainly can’t just stay there.

“Inside that community, there are many Estis. I feel tremendous empathy for someone who finds themselves in this situation. It’s heart-breaking, and I can’t think of a higher stakes dilemma for any individual.”

In preparing for her role, Weisz says she read around the subject, as well as familiarised herself with the Orthodox world – something she admits not knowing much about, having grown up in a liberal Jewish family from Hampstead Garden Suburb.

Given that her character, Ronit, had also stopped practising her Judaism, Weisz says it fell more to her co-stars, McAdams and Nivola, to “immerse themselves in all the prayers and rituals”.

She reveals: “Rachel [McAdams] spent months reading, spending time with Jewish families, learning the prayers, being invited out to Friday night meals and trying on sheitels. I really can’t claim introducing her to any of it!”

There was, however, something Weisz herself was very familiar with – the film’s north London setting – and it evoked a huge sense of nostalgia for the star, who was educated at North London Collegiate in Edgware.

Weisz, who is married to James Bond actor Daniel Craig and recently gave birth to a daughter, says: “We filmed around Golders Green Road and Hoop Lane. I used to walk that way to get home from school, having taken the Northern Line from Edgware to Golders Green, then walk back up to Hampstead Garden Suburb.

“There used to be a shop there called 32 Flavours, where we all used to hang out after school and get ice cream.”

Away from the Jewish rituals and north London backdrop, Disobedience is, of course, a story about the forbidden relationship between two women and the film does not shy away from depicting their love-making.

Rachel McAdams as Esti with Alessandro Nivola as her husband, Dovid

While the six-minute lesbian sex scene might not involve much in the way of removing clothes, Weisz admits feeling “emotionally naked” and had some trepidation before filming it, but says the director approached it in a “respectful” way.

She reveals: “I think both Rachel and I were anxious and scared on some level. It’s a very emotional scene. But Sebastián storyboarded it all beforehand, all the gestures, the way it was shot and where the camera would be.

“He authored what the scene would be, and so we felt prepared as actors to then fill it with the emotion needed.”

Rachel Weisz stars as Ronit and Rachel McAdams as Esti in Disobedience

Following on from the 2016 film Denial, in which Weisz portrayed historian Deborah Lipstadt’s landmark libel case against Holocaust denier David Irving, Disobedience is only the second film in her varied and award-winning career in which she has portrayed an overtly Jewish character.

I ask Weisz if she is now tapping more into her Jewish identity when choosing her next project.

“In a way it’s surprising that I lived so long and worked so long before
I represented a Jewish character,” she smiles.

“But I really do things on the strength of the story. Disobedience really struck me as something that was very realistic and truthful, so it was important this story was told.”

Disobedience (15) is in cinemas from Friday

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