Three Identical Strangers is one of those films (Snakes on a Plane is another) that contains its pitch within the title. And for the first 20 minutes, this documentary revels in the gleeful coincidence of three men – Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman – meeting in 1980 at the age of 19 to find that they are each the spit of one another, down to every last vocal inflection, gleaming white tooth and curl of the hair. It’s almost as if they were separated at… a-ha! The story of these siblings, unaware of one another’s existence but now miraculously reunited, becomes a US media sensation. The long-lost brothers party hard at Studio 54. They open a steakhouse called Triplets. They get a walk-on – well, a lean-on – in Desperately Seeking Susan, where Madonna does a double-take (should’ve been a triple). They make the cover of Good Housekeeping. There’s no stopping them.
“I don’t know if this is gonna be terrible or brilliant,” says one of the brothers. Had he realised that he’d be the subject of a feature documentary, he might have been less equivocal. Films tend not to be made about situations where everything turned out hunky-dory, especially not films featuring dramatic reconstructions set during thunderstorms. And Three Identical Strangers, told through revealing interviews and evocatively low-res 1980s archive material, dramatises the nature vs nurture argument in a murky and intriguing way.
If only its stylistic mannerisms didn’t threaten to obscure the storytelling. The film is the work of Raw, a documentary production company whose successes include The Imposter and American Animals (both made by the company’s creative director Bart Layton). Touches that were pertinent to those films – such as having actors in the reconstructions move their lips to the voices of the real-life subjects – just look needlessly fussy here. One irritating habit among documentary makers is to begin the audio of an interview while we’re still watching footage of the subject waiting to speak, or to incorporate shots of the interviewee adjusting his or her microphone or attending to some other trivial matter. It’s become the sort of ubiquitous signifier of authenticity or discord that the wobbly handheld camera used to be. It was all over the BBC’s recent A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad. But filmmakers should be wary of such tics, lest audiences find themselves faced with 300 identical documentaries.
From Three Identical Strangers to two strikingly different Rachels in Disobedience. Rachel Weisz, who has a thing for films named after abstract nouns (Confidence, Envy, Youth, Denial), plays Ronit, a photographer returning from New York to her Orthodox Jewish family in north London after the death of her rabbi father. Weisz is darkly mischievous – some enterprising documentary maker might investigate whether she was separated at birth from Brian Molko of Placebo – and her naughty smile threatens to flare into fury whenever her relatives start giving her grief about leaving home or failing to produce any children.
They don’t know what we know. Sitting across from her is Esti (Rachel McAdams), Ronit’s teenage sweetheart, who is now frum and married to the incoming rabbi (Alessandro Nivola). The question isn’t whether their adolescent ardour will be rekindled – I mean, come on: they both mouth along to the Cure’s “Lovesong” – but what damage it will wreak on their community.
Fresh from winning an Oscar for his transgender drama A Fantastic Woman, the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio lends this adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s 2006 novel of the same name an outsider’s curiosity, as well as his earlier film’s taste for sweeping widescreen compositions: only a foreigner could bring this much lyricism to locations within spitting distance of the North Circular.
Talking of spitting, there’s also a novel sex scene which doesn’t take the exchange of bodily fluids for granted, though even that would count for nought without the easy, teasing rapport between Weisz and McAdams, or the patient close-ups that Lelio lavishes on them. The most enchanting one comes after Ronit asks Esti whether she is still attracted only to women, and McAdams produces a string of subtly calibrated smirks and smiles, each one peeling away to reveal the next like gifts within gifts.
Both films are released on 30 November
Three Identical Strangers (12A)
dir: Tim Wardle
dir: Sebastián Lelio
This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis