DISOBEDIENCE**** The Price for freedom


DISOBEDIENCE IS SET in the small orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London (wonderfully realized by director/script-writer Sebastián Lelio who also directed A Fantastic Woman and production designer, Sarah Finlay). It is a tight-knit community, bound together by strict laws and protocols (sex is for Fridays). Ritual is all. The bewigged women all look pretty much the same, as do the black-hatted, bearded men. They look alike; they think alike. It is the only sanctioned way of life.

It is suffocating.

And yet, at the very beginning of the story, we meet the frail rabbinical elder, Rav Krushka (Anton Lesser), who preaches a sermon that seems almost radical. “Man,” he says, “hang(s) suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts…a being with free will…with the power to disobey”.

And then he dies. Struck down?

As the story unfolds, the theme of freedom (and the free will to disobey) is played out with all the nuances of its implications. Free will, the power to choose to obey or not, the story suggests, is a fundamental part of who we are. But freedom does not equate with happiness. To seek it requires daring and courage. Freedom is a burden. It is easier simply give in to the communal will, to be one of the angels or one of the beasts.

It is this death, the rabbi’s “departure”, that is the catalyst for the visit of his estranged, rebel daughter, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a chain smoking photographer living in a Manhattan (another kind of “departure”), given, it seems, to occasional sex with anonymous persons. And not even on a Friday.

Her return is cause for some consternation in this strict, judgmental community. It is also cause for some excitement for recently married Esti (Rachel McAdams), the woman who is not free to love her, but whose love for her cannot be contained. This Sapphic passion is an unorthodox love in an orthodox world. Indeed, perhaps all love contains its own unorthodoxy.

The story follows the events leading up to the funeral, as the rekindled passions shape the destinies of the three protagonists, Esti, her enamorrata, Ronit and Esti’s despairing, angry, empathetic husband, Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) the heir apparent to the temple’s leadership. For all three, the choice is the same: accept the cosy comfort zone of community obeisance (The role of the woman as helpmeet and bearer of children is mapped out clearly) or take the leap into the uncertain future of individual choice.

All three actors are outstanding in this very literary, wordy, beautifully written script (adapted from the book by Naomi Alderman). The relationship between Ronit and Esti – their love and longing and lust – feels palpably real (though it beats me why directors and actors could work so hard to deliver believable worlds, only to crack the honed surface of verisimilitude with the coy artifice of people making love with all their clothes on). Rachel Weisz in particular shines as the wronged woman punished by the community; the image of the glamorous Bohemian living in exotic New York is really a lost soul, stoically living in exile.

It’s one thing for Bob Marley to urge us to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery”. But the reality is that the price you have to pay – of loneliness, ostracism, exile, perhaps death – comes very dear indeed.

 

DISOBEDIENCE. Dir: Sebastián Leilo. Writers: Sebastián Leilo and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida). With: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams (Spotlight), Alessandro Nivola (Selma, You Were Never Really Here). Cinematographer: Danny Cohen (Florence Foster Jenkins). Production Designer: Sarah Finlay (Juliet, Naked)

 

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FINAL PORTRAIT*** The Artist as Obsessive


THIS IS A small, carefully crafted, nicely written movie about the making of art. The story is centered on Alberto Giacometti’s execution of a portrait of an American writer, James Lord (Armie Hammer who has clearly survived “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “The Lone Ranger”) whose book of the experience was director Stanley Tucci’s source material.  Lord had been assured that his sitting would take two or three days. It took over a month as the obsessed artist painted, erased, painted again and erased again Lord’s face, all the while cursing himself, cursing the canvas, oblivious of Lord’s deadlines. Indeed, oblivious of Lord himself.

Lord may have seen himself as the subject of the painting. But really, he was just its catalyst; mere fodder, like the artist’s mistress, Caroline, and his wife Annette, for Giacometti’s devouring obsessiveness. Tucci (who also wrote the script) offers us a portrait of the artist as a man outside the boundaries of time, of – sensitive – human relationships, of any of the rules and codes of bourgeois life. For the artist, the only relationship that really mattered was the one between himself and the art he was making. He was indifferent to Lord’s needs, to any trace of fidelity to his wife, to her emotional needs, to his mistress, beyond that of ‘muse’ and lover, to money (bags and bags of cash stashed under beds, in attics, wherever), even to himself.

All that mattered was the art.

He was its servant, as much as he assumed that those close to him would be his’.

He may have been a great artist, but (like so many others), this unyielding dedication to his art clearly demanded its own very special kind of relationships…he was a bit of a shit in other words. But as Giacometti, Geoffrey Rush (“a bit of a ham” Tucci calls him) offers up an engaging, otherworldly, unflattering but ultimately, sympathetic portrait. (The meta fiction of an artist creating a portrait of an artist painting one).

The small cast complements and counterbalances Rush’s at times, over-the-top style nicely. Tony Shalhoub is a quiet, solid presence as Giacometti’s brother, Diego, the voice of whispered reason amidst the chaos and clutter of the artist’s studio…and life. As his long-suffering wife, Sylvia Testud evokes a gentle dignity despite her husband’s unthinking assaults on it. And as his mistress and muse Clémence Poésy (so brilliant as the autistic detective in “The Tunnel”) flits in and out of his studio like a glowing fairy (To which you’d be tempted to remind the director that she was after all a whore. Where was the grim reality beneath the glamour?)

There’s not much of a narrative arc in the story, other than the evolution of the portrait from a few dabs of paint to, eventually, the finished object (though the artist felt his art was never really finished). But the world that’s created, due in no small part to James Merifield’s meticulous recreation of Giacometti’s cramped, untidy, shoddy studio and the restless, roving camera work of master cinematographer Danny Cohen (“Florence Foster Jenkins”; “The Danish Girl”), is watchably credible.

The flaw in the movie is that it often feels thin; its shoe-budget financing is often obvious. Tucci felt the need to bring such a degree focus and fat-free precision to his storytelling that as a result there’s no room for interesting asides. I missed the (further) exploration of the nature of observation (hinted at, but underdeveloped), the underlying roots of Lord’s acceptance of Giacometti’s Bohemian lifestyle (He was himself a homosexual fleeing the homophobia of 40’s USA), the tension between Giacometti’s wealth and the seeming poverty of his lifestyle (he wouldn’t buy his wife a new coat, but would lavish money on his mistress) etc.

It’s one of those rare movies that actually comes in just under 90 minutes. Maybe 30 minutes more would have created a more nuanced portrait

 

FINAL PORTRAIT. Dir: Stanley Tucci. With: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer, Clémence Poésy, Tony Shalhoub. Cinematgorapher: Danny Cohen. Production Designer: James Merifield

 

ROOM***Dull


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THE STORY OF Room, the excellent novel turned into a bland movie, is gripping enough: a woman is kidnapped, raped (repeatedly), impregnated and imprisoned in a shed with the son she gives birth to…for over five years. To the son, the room is his entire universe. And then one day, rolled in a carpet like Cleopatra, he’s smuggled out… reborn as it were to a new world, a new reality. The whole thing is told through his uncomprehending eyes.

But the movie, despite the brilliance of its two principal actors (Brie Larson from Trainwreck and the nine year old Jacob Tremblay), was written by the book’s author (Emma Donoghue), who also wrote the screenplay for…why, nothing else. This is always a risky proposition. And in this case, Room the moving novel absolutely fails to make the transition from book to film.

Because the movie (true to the book) is also told from the kid’s perspective and (probably also) in an attempt not to sensationalize the story, the film pulls back on ever giving us a clue to Ma (the mother’s) dread, her sense of desolation and loss, what must have been her loathing…horror of the nightly rapes. Even the drama and tension of the escape and the kid’s near recapture is a listless, unexciting affair. Jack (the kid’s) reality was that all was fine. So we the audience are left with having to work very hard to feel otherwise.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) places the emotional emphasis instead on the bond between mother and child. For five years, locked in a small room, Ma manages to make Jack’s life happy and fulfilling. There’s a real chemistry between the two actors and the love they show is touchingly real.

But what we gain with the emphasis on the mother/child relationship (symbolically the room is still her womb) we lose with the drama.

The movie feels flat, as if drained of tension and energy.

Certainly Abrahamson works hard to retain the integrity of the central idea driving the tale: reality is a very personal, esoteric conceit (that’s why “all’s well” in the room); and one that’s almost impossible to redefine and reimagine.

Jack (Tremblay) has only ever known the room. He’s proud of his ability to distinguish the difference between what’s real (his bed, his cupboard, his mother…) and what’s unreal (the worlds he experiences on TV). The problem comes when there’s the need to replace one reality (the room) with another (the world ‘out there’). A naturally happy, chatty boy, he clams up and whispers only to his mother (Larson) – the only remaining vestige of the reality he’s known. Indeed, when we see him in his new environment (the capacious home of his grandmother – the always compelling Joan Allen – and her partner, Sean Bridges from Trumbo), we see him through the bars and grills of the stairs, doorways etc, as if he’s in a prison.

but he’s young…and as one character notes, “plastic”. If the room has been his only experience, his sense of reality is not so set that it can’t be amended. Not so much his mother. No longer in control of the situation (despite being a kidnap victim and sex slave) and newly terrified by “the world”, she simply loses it. Even as the son breaks away from the barriers of his mind, she becomes ever trapped…unable to adjust to the new reality she faces. And his grandfather (William H Macy) just can’t handle the fact that his daughter had been raped and his grandson, who he can’t look in the eye, is the result of the union. Indeed (it is implied) it was the attempt to get to grips with a missing daughter, dread reality that that is, that caused the breakdown of his marriage.

It’s a solid, intelligent movie. It’s just, well…dull.

ROOM. Dir:Lenny Abrahamson. WITH: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Sean Bridges, Hoan Allen, William H Macy. SCREENPLAY: Emma Donoghue. CINEMATOGRAPHER: Danny Cohen. PRODUCTION DESIGN: Ethan Tobman