A director could do worse than to find the niche that Sebastián Lelio has found, telling stories centered around the kind of women who tend to be shooed all the way to the margins of movies, anchored by terrific leading performances: a middle-aged woman with active sex drives in Gloria, a trans woman in A Fantastic Woman, and now Orthodox Jewish lesbians in Disobedience. For example one could find the other niche that Lelio has firmly made his home, which is to place those characters inside dramatically inert non-movies whose refusal to be interesting as stories feels like it might be part of some attempt to make the characters stand out more.

At any rate, Disobedience is the point where it finally ground me down, though I'm not sure if that's because working for the first time in English put Lelio at a disadvantage, or if it's because I'm inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to anything I see subtitled. The film is, to be certain, not bad, but that's the absolute height of praise I can imagine giving to any part of it other than its two lead performances. And even not bad is agreeing that the acutely terrible editing, which merrily dances on the grave of the 180° Rule, is in some way a deliberate and productive stylistic choice, though I could not begin to explain what it produces.

The film, anyway, opens with a London rabbi (Anton Lesser) offering a discussion of the human being as the choice-making figure in God's plan for the world: the angels lack free will, and the beasts lack the wisdom to understand what they do, but humans can and do make choices that may or may not be morally righteous. He then drops dead, right in the synagogue. If you expect that this enormously weighted passage will flicker on the edges of the movie before being hauled at the end to provide the film with its otherwise totally unearned emotional climax, I am very pleased to report that Disobedience will not be a disappointment to you.

The rabbi's only child is a daughter, Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz), who fled the Orthodox community of her upbringing many years ago, leaving quite a few angry friends and relations behind her. Now working as a photographer in New York, Ronit spends a day or two burying herself in sorrowful hedonism before boarding a plane to England, to face the moral judgment of the people she left behind. Really, the only friendly faces are her childhood best friends: Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), the most promising of the late rabbi's pupils, and Dovid's wife Esti (Rachel McAdams). After some time watching Ronit navigate the icy, but politely-expressed hatred of the community leaders, and reacquaint herself with the rhythms and details of Orthodox life, we figure out why she had to get out in such a hurry, and why Esti is so uniquely glad to see her: the two women were lovers as teenagers, and Esti, at least, has certainly not had any reason to get over it, what with her pro forma, sexually unsatisfying marriage having removed her from the world.

The details, at least, are new, but Disobedience still feels pretty damn familiar, only slowed down. The script, adapted by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz from Naomi Alderman's 2006 novel, is a wobbly attempt to combine a slice-of-life study of London's Orthodox Jewish community with the particularly dramatic effect of Ronit's contentious return, leading to a fairly ungainly meandering feeling, as if no scene we see specifically needs to be there, nor does it have any real naturally-occurring ideal length. There's absolutely no rhythm to anything that happens, nor any sense of direction until very deep into the film; the film's 114-minute running time is hardly outrageous for a story of this type, but it feels a whole hell of a lot longer than that, and that's even before we hit the last half-hour or so. At that point, the film at last starts to adopt a clear narrative thrust, but it also simultaneously develops a terrible case of not knowing when to stop. By my count, the film passes by four very clear "this is the last shot" moments before arriving at a fifth and final ending, and I'd be hard-pressed to say that any of them would be especially more or less satisfying, though the sooner it happened, the less contrived it would feel (there's one especially contrived development in, if I remember correctly, Ending #3 that puts the film squarely in melodrama territory, though this isn't nearly fun enough to be a melodrama).

So the whole thing is a bit draggy and tedious, and this is matched by its frankly ugly visual aesthetic, all smoky, sickly browns and brownish-greys. Danny Cohen is a contentious cinematographer whose work I tend to admire for its perversity if nothing else, but this is just a shabby-looking thing. This is almost on purpose, presumably: the big idea at play is that Ronit fled her home because of how stifling and drab it was, and making a drab movie is an effective, if off-putting, way of getting that across. But that idea doesn't hold water: New York, what little we see of it, is just as drab, and the couple of moments in the film that would presumably be more lively and colorful aren't.

Alright that gives us... slow and ugly, with practically no driving conflict. Standing to counterbalance this, in the director's favorite style, we have the two Rachels, both of whom are simply outstanding. If I consider Weisz to be more outstanding, that's in part because the film doesn't seem to really care about Esti until the halfway point, concerning itself almost entirely with Ronit's deeply uncomfortable homecoming (which doesn't even particularly include her feelings for Esti except as an afterthought, till also around the halfway point). And Weisz nails every challenge the film tosses her way and some it doesn't: in one scene, I swear, the way she holds her fork is a profound bit of acting speaking deep truths about the character in that moment (she's gripping it with too many fingers and inclining it towards herself: it looks both childish and also like she's sublimating all her frustrations into choking that fork to death). Both her and McAdams - and even moreso Nivola, who is good in his own right - are trying to deal with characters who are, at the script level, confusingly imagined, with something more like ad hoc backstories than actual histories, and in McAdams's special case, a grievous inconsistency as to whether or not we're meant to side with her subjectivity or not. And they're not always completely successful, though for the most part, the performances remain just enough to keep the film on track, even when it hasn't fleshed out the characters, even when it drops them into a sex scene that overshoots "raw and real and passionate" to land at "porny and goofy". I cannot, despite my deep love for both of the leads, bring myself to say that Weisz and McAdams make Disobedience worth the time; but nor would I try to talk anyone down from seeing it. The film's only crime is that it's boring without interruption, and that is only a small crime.