A Suffocating Slow-Burn Drama that Plods before it Shines
Updated: May 25, 2018
The phrase “may you live a long life” is repeated throughout the film, offering consolation at a time of pain and suffering. It is a phrase that encapsulates the sentiment, “hang in there, and all will eventually be well.” While the intended meaning of the phrase reforms and refines as the story plays out, it wouldn’t be remiss to suggest that the characters are putting out a soft assurance to the audience. The film meanders and stagnates, at times snailing towards its conclusion, with a suffering and a pain that is as much endowed on the viewer as it is on the characters. Nevertheless, a well-crafted denouement, which takes place in the public forum of the synagogue, provides a nuanced and worthwhile wait, steering the sentiment of the film in an unexpected direction. While it takes time for the narrative to take a foothold, the strength of love rings out in a surprising manner that makes the film important, if not ground-breaking.
After the death of her father, photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) returns from New York to the Orthodox Jewish community in London where she grew up in order to attend the funeral. It is a community that she had been shunned from decades earlier due to her relationship with a female friend, Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams). When the funeral reunites Ronit with Esti and Esti’s now-husband Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a close confidant to Ronit’s father and the heir-apparent to the local synagogue, an exploration into faith and sexuality ensues, challenging the conflict between the weight of religious doctrine and the freedom of sexual expression.
Sebastian Lelio creates a suffocating world for a suffocating story. The camera frame is tight, the depth-of-field shallow and the colour pallet bland in order to bring us into a world that is devoid of freedom and natural expression. The interactions between characters are invariably curated, affixed under the eyes of God, which dictates language, touch and appearance. Ronit offers an upheaval to this cloistered world. She is an outcast that returns and, in doing so, puts strain on the principles of the community, revealing just how fragile it is. Whether Ronit is around the dinner table with the Jewish elders, conversing with her uncle over her father’s will or carefully duelling with Dovid over her implicated past, the artful stand off between Ronit and her former world is palpable and always present.
While Lelio does well to establish this community, the foothold into a story about sexuality and expression is left wanting. The narrative meanders, tiptoeing over a vast array of suppression before plunging into the specific issue of sexuality. While Weisz and McAdams offer admirable and highly competent performances, the misgivings in adequately establishing the characters causes the revelation of their relationship to be stilted. McAdams and Weisz overcome the limitations of the script but ultimately the relationship that plays out on screen suffers from a narrative that is tunnel-visioned. The story is not given room to breath, impeding us from understanding how these women have grappled with their sexuality in the decades since they were together as young teenagers.
Nevertheless, if there is a saving grace to the way in which the story is set up, it comes in the form of Dovid’s development. Nivola’s performance steals the show. While Ronit and Esti reveal little character development, Dovid goes through a complex and enthralling journey that captivates where other scenes toil. The stakes for Esti and Ronit never fully seem to take hold. In contrast, Dovid is left with the prospect of losing an entire community that he has laboured and strived to represent. If there is one scene that recovers the slow pace of the movie it is when Dovid confronts his entire world and lays himself open and bear, choosing to act with conviction rather than expectation. It is a powerful scene, beautiful shot and paced in an otherwise humdrum movie.
Often the script plods and trudges with monastic asceticism, the story as self-flagellating as the characters, but where the narrative is given room to breath the characters reveal moments of brightness in an otherwise stifling environment. Unlike in his Academy Award-winning movie, A Fantastic Woman, Lelio does little to incorporate the city environment as a character in the film. London comes across as a bleak backdrop, a playing space of suburban homes and under alleys that do not define or cultivate the atmosphere in which the story takes place. In addition, the use of The Cure’s “Love Song” as an indelible trope to the music, while perfect in meaning is off-pitch in its style, interrupting a world with a sound that does not fit with the characters with which it collides.
Perhaps the most glaring reservation to the story though comes in the incomplete grappling of Ronit’s relationship with her father. Constantly presented at odds with her father, Ronit ends the film by returning to his grave. While the sentiment feels authentic, the film finds too much time to centre itself away from their relationship that the ending feels off-key. The film may fail to capitalize on the relationship between its two leads but it does a commendable job in addressing the relationship between personal conviction and religious expectation.