As Sonia, the frustrated wife of a young Hasidic scholar in "A Price Above Rubies," Renie Zellweger wears knee-length jumpers over turtleneck jerseys, frilled and pleated blouses buttoned to the neck. At bedtime -- even when making love with her husband, Mendel (Glenn Fitzgerald) -- she wears long flannel and lace nightgowns. One look at her flushed cheeks tells you she's burning up, suffocating. Sonia is a grown woman dressed in little girl's clothes and, like a child, she's expected to do as she's told without questioning. The people who surround Sonia in the Orthodox New York community where she lives have their antennae out for any dissent -- seen as an affront to tradition, to God. And since Zellweger is an actress whose every emotion is right there on her face, Sonia puts herself under constant suspicion.
"A Price Above Rubies," which was written and directed by Boaz Yakin ("Fresh"), is about how Sonia pulls away from Orthodox life, bit by bit, until her few remaining ties are decisively severed. The title is a line taken from a song sung by Orthodox Jews on the Sabbath: "A woman of valor has a price above rubies." You could say the same thing about an actress with courage. Yakin is nowhere near as brave as Zellweger, and his script doesn't take her as far as she's prepared to go.
But she's frequently amazing. Zellweger combines a grown woman's frustrated sexuality with a child's instinctive sense of injustice. Sonia is starved for physical affection and can't believe that what she's craving is a sin. When she responds to Mendel's lovemaking, he stops, telling her it's indecent. (Prayer is his idea of foreplay.) On her monthly visit to the mikvah -- the ritual baths Orthodox women attend to purify themselves after their period -- Sonia has a chance to simply luxuriate, and she can't refrain from enjoying it any more than she's able to keep from wolfing down the egg roll she eats on the sly. She's greedy for pleasure. In Zellweger's most startling moment, Sonia is calmed by her sister-in-law, Rachel (Juliana Marguiles), after she suffers an anxiety attack. As Rachel rubs Sonia's shoulders we can see Sonia's whole body unwind and then -- unexpectedly but perfectly in character -- she cranes her neck up and begins kissing Rachel full on the lips.
Sonia's predicament seems even more cruel and absurd than that of someone living in a cult. She's not holed up in some rural retreat: The panorama of life in New York is all around her. But when she stands segregated with the other women, watching the men of her community prepare to take part in the bris of her son, she might as well be a time traveler making sense of some ancient sect. Yakin is trying to explore the territory where tradition and belief become narrow and intolerant, and what happens when someone who wants to live in the world finds herself in a religious community that wants to be separate from it.
Unfortunately, "A Price Above Rubies" is an almost textbook example of what happens when a deeply conventional director takes on an unconventional subject and chickens out. Yakin writes and directs scenes as if he were a student turning in the neatest research paper imaginable. (That's part of why his attempts at Jewish magical realism -- with characters who are literally wandering spirits -- falls flat: His approach doesn't allow for mystery.) Some moments are unintentionally funny. When Sonia goes to the rebbe (John Randolph) to explain her dilemma, he gets so inflamed that he has to go and make love to his wife (Kim Hunter). In the next scene, we find out the rebbe has dropped dead. Watching as the orthodox men tear their suit jackets in grief, I couldn't help but think of the old Woody Allen line, "They rent their garments, then raised the rent but refused to paint."
Yakin underlines the meaning of everything so there's never a doubt about a character's motives. Sonia begins working for her brother-in-law, Sender (Christopher Eccleston of "Jude," "Shallow Grave" and "Let Him Have It"), a jewel merchant. (It's explained that she learned the trade from her father, a gemologist who didn't want her to enter the business.) She also begins a joyless affair with him. Would it have been too much to show Sonia responding sexually to Sender? This is one of those movies where we can tell the director disapproves of extramarital sex because he makes it look so physically uncomfortable. Sonia and Sender shtup fully clothed, standing against walls or lying on tables.
Sender's gender -- you should pardon the rhyme -- gives him more freedom than Sonia has to break the rules of his religion, with a lesser chance of being caught. But instead of the film exploring this link between these characters, Eccleston (a very talented actor who at moments suggests the sort of menacing sexuality Rod Steiger had in "Doctor Zhivago") is made into a villain out of 19th century melodrama in a way that made me uncomfortable; Sender calls up too many portrayals of the devious Jew.
Yakin blows his chance to explore the subject of Jews who are put off by antiquated and alien aspects of their faith. (A Jewish friend of mine whose uncle died some years back once told me how his aunt returned from the funeral to find a bowl of water waiting outside their apartment, a tradition meant to symbolize the washing away of dirt from the grave. She demanded, "Get this out of here. We're not superstitious peasants.") He's certainly not gutsy enough to have Sonia consciously reject her religion. The choices she makes are all clichés left over from the Liberated Woman movies of 20 years ago. What Yakin ends up with is that old middle-of-the-road groaner about the good and bad in every race. He doesn't have to worry about offending anyone. He functions as his own pressure group.