Film Review: Women Talking

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.

For my reviews of additional films, please click here.

Photo by Olivier Miche on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Film Review: Women Talking

  1. Elegant writing. That of a 30’s 16 cylinder Cadillac, brilliant and innovative engineering firing perfectly together while powerfully moving style and artistry rapidly down the page. This reader enjoyed the elevated ride down the illustrative verbiage highway.
    I would usually not choose a story this inherently disturbing. Mostly they focus on the captors and their motivations. But here you describe a story of captives finding their voices, together, through extreme adversity and religious and educational roadblocks.
    Everyone is somehow a captive of something. The desire to rise up is something we all can relate to, or at the least, aspire to. My interest is piqued.
    Now to find the 30’s 16 cylinder Cadillac to motor to the movie theatre with you in. Wonderful review!

    1. Michael, what a gorgeous review of my review. Thank you. I’m going to print and frame it. Seriously. Yes, these women found their voices, despite the harrowing, surreal experiences they’ve endured. It’s inspirational. I understand the movie has only recouped about $9 million of a rather large budget. Sad. Because this should be required viewing. Let me know if you find the Caddy. xo

  2. I am completely overwhelmed by Michael’s review of your stunning review. Yes, do frame his words -they are deserving of preservation and celebration. As are your eloquent, and yes, elegant, words. This film’s subject is one that is incredibly disturbing to me, as it should be to everyone. Your review makes me want to experience the power of the film, and of the women who tell this story, but I will probably not put myself through that. I say that even though it makes me feel like a traitor to those who have lived this story and those who brought it to the world’s attention. Bravo, bravo, bravissimo!

    1. Thanks, Ann. It is a disturbing story. When the review appeared on Sixty and Me, a few of the comments were very specific about not wanting to put themselves through the experience. It’s understandable. xo

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