Chilean director Sebastian Lelio won an Oscar for the overrated A Fantastic Woman, and he’s getting heavily praised for his adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel that takes place in a London Hasidic community. A woman named Ronit (Rachel Weisz) gets news of her rabbi father’s death, and that causes her to go to a bar, drink, and have sex with a man in a bathroom. It felt like a bad TV movie or something I would’ve seen on Cinemax late at night in the ‘80s. She does return to London, and doesn’t seem very welcome there. We figure it’s because she had a relationship with the Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) who reluctantly invites her to stay at his house. He was the father’s chief disciple, and is going to be taking over for him. We quickly find out that she actually had the affair with this guy’s wife (Rachel McAdams).
Ronit has that profession that’s popular in films — a photographer. It’s probably hard to make a living doing that, but she seems to be mingling with the rich and famous, and her family references magazines they’ve seen her work in; they even question the different last name she uses.
When Ronit’s uncle Moshe (Allan Corduner) tells her that her father left his house to the synagogue, it’s heartbreaking, but understandable. The father seemingly disowned her after he caught her having an affair with Esti (Rachel McAdams).
We get shots of Ronit walking around town, with her wild mane blowing in the breeze and an attitude that almost seems to flaunt her wild ways around the community.
The trailers for this movie show Esti and Ronit having an affair, so that’s not a spoiler. A number of critics have talked about how tasteful the scene was shot, and how it wasn’t exploitative. The problem my wife and I had with this scene was something they did. One of the women let a huge amount of saliva go into the other’s mouth. There were a few other times when one would spit into the other’s mouth. I had to ask my wife on the way home…if that was a thing? She hadn’t heard of that, and neither had I. And doing that ruins the scene because…if these two are together for the first time in years, or decades…it doesn’t seem like something they would do. For example, we could imagine a lot of things they might do, that could be rather sensual and sexual. But we wouldn’t expect one of them to grab a candle and drip wax on the other. We wouldn’t expect one to grab a sex toy or go all Fifty Shades of Grey. One of these women is highly religious, and “happily” married. And since spitting in the mouth of another isn’t even a thing most people have heard of, it was an odd choice to include it here. Especially when they started off with such passionate kissing, that you really felt these two women cared so deeply for each other still, after all these years. It was a shame it got ruined by spitting.
There’s also something about the two female characters that doesn’t quite work. They’re not fully realized, the way Dovid’s character is. They feel more like characters that were scripted, not real people.
There are a few scenes that would’ve been more powerful, had I not seen similar scenes done better in other films. An example of that would be when Dovid and his wife have their usual Friday night lovemaking session. He’s on top of her, and she looks up at the ceiling, slightly bored. I found a similar scene much more powerfully done with Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo in The House of Sand and Fog. He is on top of her, and she doesn’t appear into it. He finishes, and she gently pats him on the shoulder a few times, as if to say “Okay, good job. I did my wifely duty, now let’s go to sleep.”
The potential for melodramatic tension was there, but merely having characters briskly walk or have brooding looks, isn’t enough. Having a character trying to be with her husband, who we know she doesn’t really love, goes and throws up. That doesn’t work. Neither does cranking up the film score so loud, which just makes the whole thing feel like a soap opera, as does a scene with a cab pulling away, only to have somebody run after it.
I was yearning for an examination of faith. For example, the film bookends nicely with sermons on free will. At the start of the movie, it’s Ravi Kruschka (Anton Lesser). It’s a rather moving scene (especially how it concludes). Near the end of the film, it’s Dovid giving a terrific sermon on the subject, made all the more powerful by a previous scene where he got so mad at his wife, you feared a slap to the face was coming.
It will be easy for critics to embrace this movie. It’s the type of film critics feel like they need to praise. Yet it never gets you on the emotional level it should. There’s just not a lot here that’s enjoyable to watch, despite how well crafted it all is.
2 stars out of 5.