This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876. It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell, which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.
So. to the plot, in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.
Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time. One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!
But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters. Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi) was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit. Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.
The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.
Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books. But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.
I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue. The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film. She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher. The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians. She was being ironic, I think.
I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments, not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam) unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom. If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.
It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue. Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.
The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex, back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.