The quality that distinguishes human beings from angels and beasts is our free will - "the power to disobey." So says a spiritual leader to his flock in the opening scene of "Disobedience."
That speaker is Rabbi Krushka (Anton Lesser), a widower whose daughter's willfulness has caused her to be exiled from the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in which she grew up.
The British rabbi's words turn out to be his last; he collapses and soon dies. A trans-Atlantic call carries the news to his only child, Ronit (Rachel Weisz), now a New York-based photographer.
Upon returning to London, Ronit cautiously is accepted as a houseguest by former childhood friend Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a rabbi who was her father's protege and is married to Esti (Rachel McAdams), another childhood friend - or more than that. Ronit and Esti's adolescent lust for each other seems to have been the crucial impetus for Ronit's banishment.
Soon, Esti and Ronit are in bed together, although their biggest public indiscretion is kissing. Two members of the congregation spy them and file a complaint, threatening Esti's job as a teacher in an Orthodox school, and - maybe - imperiling Dovid's chance to become Rabbi Krushka's successor.
Taking its cues from the religious severity of the community in which it's set, "Disobedience" is austere, deliberate and rather chilly.
What warmth there is - and it is considerable - radiates from its three lead performers and a script that treats each central character as neither hero nor villain. Weisz makes Ronit sympathetic if a little inconsiderate. McAdams' Esti loses control when alone with Ronit, but at other times she is too careful and aware of what she might have to sacrifice for love. Nivola shows how Dovid struggles to reconcile his faith's dogma and his jealousy with, ultimately, his feelings of empathy.
The characters' emotions are underscored, clunkily, in some scenes. These nudges aren't needed in a movie whose best moments mirror the frustrations of real life, not the dramatic climaxes of Shakespearean tragedy or the blithe choruses of pop songs.