“So, what is this thing? Man? Woman? It is a being with the power to disobey. Alone among all the creatures we have free will. We hang suspended between the clarity of the angels and the desires of the beasts.”
Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s thoughtful drama, adapted from a novel by Naomi Alderman, follows Ronit as she returns to an Orthodox Jewish community in London after her estranged father’s death, stirring emotions when reunited with her childhood best friend. Ronit’s past emerges naturally from the narrative which is as much about losing a community as it is about religion and temptation. Food plays a central cultural role and we see in Rachel Weisz’s face the transportive flavours conjuring childhood memories. Disobedience takes a nuanced and restrained approach to religious trauma, directly challenging the denial of choice and freedom to those raised within rigid belief systems whilst avoiding the temptation to vilify the community itself. Alessandro Nivola is striking in his gentle supportiveness, a faithful disciple of Ronit’s father who has become a respected rabbi, yet he bristles with anger when his authority is challenged. Indeed restraint is evident throughout Disobedience, the film’s muted colour palette fitting an environment in which conflicts are rarely voiced directly. Returning to London reinforces the cost of Ronit’s escape which is losing an entire community and particularly her friend Esti. Diegetic use of The Cure’s Lovesong during a pivotal scene serves a dual purpose with the lyric “You make me feel like I am home again.” Although we experience events largely through Ronit’s perspective, it is Esti who provides the story arc as Ronit’s return forces her to grapple with her own decision to remain in the community. Disobedience may not offer the cathartic relief that some former believers might desire, but it is more meaningful as a result — it ventures beyond mere escapism to underscore the cost of that escape.
“I’ve lived a lot of lives… but I’m done running from my past.”
The first two thirds of Black Widow is a taut globetrotting espionage action movie that explores the character’s secretive past and her childhood family as part of a Russian sleeper cell. Highlights include a tense escape sequence through city traffic with her sister, a Siberian jailbreak, and an incredibly awkward family reunion. Unfortunately the final act falls into formulaic Marvel action territory with a weak villain that all swiftly becomes tedious and leaves an underwhelming overall impression. Black Widow also suffers from being released many years too late. In 2019, I said it was a shame for Captain Marvel only to arrive once fatigue with the Marvel formula was setting in. In 2021, not only has Black Widow already been killed off in the mainline franchise, but — with key actors bowing out after Endgame — we don’t even see Scarlett Johansson’s easygoing chemistry with her Avengers co-stars, just repeated name dropping. Johansson is still the film’s greatest asset, deftly switching between strength and suppressed vulnerability. She is ably supported by the two new character introductions — Florence Pugh as Natasha’s assassin sister and David Harbour as the bombastic Red Guardian — but this attempt to flesh out Black Widow’s backstory now is too little and too late for a character that the MCU has never treated as well as she deserves.
The political machinations behind the British intelligence services lend themselves well to suspenseful, slow burn thrillers. Page Eight falls on the quieter end of the spectrum, following a senior analyst with politically sensitive information. It may lack the deeper intrigue of Le Carré or the urgency of Eye in the Sky, but the excellent cast is enthralling to watch even as the plot unfolds in a largely predictable fashion. David Hare is generally content to pose questions rather than to answer to them, including the purpose of intelligence services in the 21st century, and the extent to which these organisations view survival as more important than the truth. Where he does take a stance, however, is the need for truth to allow us to grieve.
If there is a common theme to Darren Aronofsky’s films it is obsession, in this case a doctor’s desperate drive to cure his wife’s cancer before it takes her, failing to spend time with her whilst she comes to accept her mortality. Rather than focus solely upon this personal drama, Aronofsky seeks to tackle the more profound nature of death through a separate fiction that mirrors the central narrative, with the same lead actors. This serves to depersonalise the characters, along with a brief running time reducing them to sketches, so that we understand them on an intellectual level but struggle particularly to empathise with them. From the opening ten minutes, spanning multiple eras with fantastic elements and a striking black and gold palette, I feared this would be a frustratingly inscrutable experience. Instead, once its structure emerges, The Fountain‘s ideas about death turn out to be surprisingly straightforward, with far less depth than its ambition.
“Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you. “
Sumptuous period costuming allows The Favourite initially to lull the viewer into a false sense of familiarity before Yorgos Lanthimos’s sly humour and trademark weirdness emerge. More accessible than The Lobster (perhaps in part because he is adapting an existing screenplay), The Favourite is a delightful, subversive take on politics in the court of Queen Anne and the rivalry between two of her closest confidants. Plainly fictionalised, the film relies less on historical accuracy than the believability of its leads — three women at the height of their game. Rachel Weisz is coldly ruthless, Emma Stone vulnerable but deceptive, and Olivia Colman is excellent, earning an Oscar by carving a genuinely tragic figure at the centre of this dark comedy.