The gaunt, stricken faces on the characters of Director, Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking“, tell us a great deal about despair. Living within the confines of an isolated religious colony, they have, over the course of their lives, been repeatedly sprayed with livestock tranquilizers in the dead of night, then raped; sometimes by more than one assailant. The male cohorts of the colony call the charges raised by the women as acts of vivid imagination, delusion, or punishment from God. Even when the rapes result in pregnancy.
Ms. Polley, who wrote the film’s Oscar-winning screenplay, gives us access to the story in the midst of an extreme paradigm shift. One of the women has thwarted her assailant, mid-attack. During the commission of a violent act of retribution against him, she discovers the names of his co-conspirators. Between the time of the men’s arrest, and an effort by the colony’s men to raise bail, a quorum of women are left alone long enough to hold a tribunal. They will ultimately decide to proceed with one of three options: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. A high-stakes debate that will determine their fate.
The women gather at a hayloft in the agrarian community’s barn. A large opening in the side of the structure reveals a distant world existing just outside of their predicament, perhaps metaphorically further than their ability to reach. The question is, can the women – who have long lived under the heavy thumb of male oppression – abandon the only world they know? And, if so, are they wise enough to build a peaceful existence for themselves, elsewhere?
They reach the debate table with many strikes against them. Not the least of which is the lack of formal education. They can neither read nor write. It is the memorized biblical passages that form the spine of their strict religious philosophy, and the unrelenting devotion to faith, forgiveness, and healing. They will need to believe that the God who allowed the atrocities against them, can be the same God to lead them to redemption. The answer lies somewhere between the blindness of their rage and the sanity of their pragmatism.
Ms. Polley has assembled a formidable cast to parse the facts. Ensemble acting can provide opportunity for a succession of star turns. But the cast of Women Talking unerringly deliver calibrated performances in strict service to the story. Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Sheila McCarthy, and Judith Ivey, are standouts. Their soliloquys pin-map the emotional status of each character. But it is the intense, empathic debate between them that cuts a path toward consensus. The health of the group will take precedence over resistance or revenge.
In order to leave a narrative for the men, they select a scribe to take minutes of the meeting. August, (Ben Whishaw), is the sensitive, empathic son of a woman expelled from the colony for challenging its lifestyle. His presence might imply that men – good men – should be open and attentive when women are talking. When it becomes clear the rest of the male cohort will soon return, an elder member of the group suggests the women turn their individual grievances into fuel that can move them toward a better place.
Cinematographer, Luc Montpellier, and Ms. Polley’s decision to desaturate the color rendition of the film is an homage to photographer, Larry Towell. Towell famously shot black and white images of a Mennonite community in Mexico. The resulting muted wash of color allows us to concentrate on what the women are saying, instead of on their surroundings.
Composer, Hildur Guonadottir, underlines the temperament of the film with a haunting score that feels risen from the ground beneath the women. Using The Monkees’ 1960s hit, Daydream Believer, is an inspired bit of mood shifting. It’s lyric, “Cheer up, sleepy Jean” blares out from the truck of a census taker. Perhaps a challenge for the women to awaken from the somnambulant acceptance of their situation.
The film is based on Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name. Ms. Toews was, herself, born into a Mennonite community in Manitoba, Canada.
Events in the film mirror those in a Bolivian Mennonite colony just a little more than a decade ago. Seven of the eight defendants in that case were found guilty.
Though Women Talking seems far from a story ripped from the headlines, it is a banner moment in the politics of sexual oppression against women. Written by a woman. Directed by a woman. Optioned into a movie and produced by women. Performed by a cast of formidable female actors and activists. The film demonstrates that much can be learned from the unique voices of survivors and their advocates. If we choose to listen.
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