Synopsis – Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. In 2010, the women of an isolated religious community grapple with reconciling a brutal reality with their faith.
My Take – In the last few years, since the #MeToo reckoning, we’ve heard of agonizing stories from many different types of women describing insidious sexual abuse, but the most publicized have understandably not come from secretive communities.
In actor turned writer-director Sarah Polley’s suspenseful and galvanizing fourth feature, following Away From Her (2006), Take This Waltz (2011) and Stories We Tell (2012), she tells such kind of a story of oppression, trauma, and sexual assault, while showcasing the power struggle that takes between men and women, and how women find it difficult to emancipate themselves from men.
Based loosely on author Miriam Toews’ eponymous 2018 novel of the same name, which itself is based on the real-life events that took place in 2011, her film takes aim at patriarchal structures, and the ensuing philosophical gridlocks emerging from a society where sexual assault is all too common, and women have finally begun to speak out. Resulting in a wonderful piece of film making that engages right from the outset with great dialogue, a disturbing story, and an empowering conclusion.
Yes, the film may be something of a thought experiment, after all it bills itself as an act of female imagination, and might feel unavoidably stagey, with talky, tense scenes weighing the pros and cons of the decisions, but as a viewer I never felt impatient as the stakes and consequences are hardly theoretical, and writer-director Polley does make sure the scenes move swiftly without bogging down in its own verbosity, unsurprising considering she picked up the Best Adapted Screenplay award at the Oscars two nights ago. This is also one of those rare ensemble films where every single performance makes it worth watching.
Set in 2010, in an unnamed, isolated Mennonite colony, where the women and girls of all ages discover that they have been frequently raped by their husbands, brothers and neighbors, waking up after being drugged with cow tranquilizers, sheets soaked in blood. For years they have endured bruises and some even left pregnant. But when they finally caught an attacker and he named others, they were taken off to jail for their own protection from the enraged women.
Now with the remaining men gone to town to bail them out, the women are left with just 24 hours to determine their response. Should they forgive the men, as their Christian beliefs would seem to demand? Should they respond with their own physical violence or pack their things and leave the colony?
But when the vote is tied between staying and fighting, and leaving. Eleven of the colony’s women, including Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Agata (Judith Ivey), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Autje (Kate Hallett) and Nietje (Liv McNeil), hold a plebiscite to decide, with August (Ben Whishaw), the schoolteacher and seemingly the only man in the whole place who isn’t a vile predator, taking minutes of the meeting as the women themselves cannot read or write.
While Melvin (August Winter), a transgender man who after being raped does not speak, except to the younger people, is left in charge of watching over them and warning them of any outside developments.
With its monologues and intense subject matter, throughout the course of the film, the women find themselves engaged in a conversation about the decision they must make. Here, Polley‘s direction is flawless, particularly how she manages to capture the reaction shots of the characters.
The cutaways are an interesting stylistic device incorporated in the film, which should give the audience a glimpse of what happened to the characters and showcase the severity of the situation. She depicts the barbarity with a careful sensitivity many might have spared, never forcing us to watch the acts but only the aftermath, enough to shock and appall.
The trauma shows on the women’s bodies in different ways. There are bruised thighs. Lost teeth. Recurring panic attacks. Ona is pregnant. Salome must walk a day and a half to get her four-year-old daughter antibiotics. And in the same way that the physical impact differs, so do each of these women in their responses. Seething with rage, Salome has tried to kill one of the men.
Ona is left with profound questions like if the women stay and fight, what are they fighting for?, while Mariche, whose husband is an abuser, doesn’t want to make a fuss. The subject of forgiveness is also broached, both as a religious concept as well as one with a collective social function. But these intellectual musings, while no doubt engaging, are eventually set aside in favor of its emotional strengths.
Lest it all sound too grim, the film is actually very warm, with moments of humor and tenderness beaming through it like rays. The women laugh, sing together and sometimes disagree but, through a kind of silent, sisterly understanding, always end up comforting one another. The journey to their decision is propulsive and gripping. The only real misstep director Polley makes is her decision to utilize naturalistic cinematography.
There is no getting around how muddy and, frankly, ugly the film looks. Perhaps it’s meant to reflect the ugliness of the subject, but it’s also just plain hard to see many scenes which are under-lit. But I guess the film is not about the visuals, it’s about the conversation, and the women having it, and the decision they make for themselves, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a conversation well worth witnessing.
The ensemble cast is on staggering form. From the furiously unforgiving Jessie Buckley, to sharp-tongued traditionalist Frances McDormand, to a pregnant and pensive Rooney Mara, to the angriest woman of the lot Claire Foy, the cast is as terrific as it is outspoken. Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil and August Winter equally contribute to the proceedings, with Ben Whishaw bringing his familiar gentleness and sincerity to his role. On the whole, ‘Women Talking’ is a star-studded deep drama with great characters and a fascinating story that manages to be riveting throughout.
Directed – Sarah Polley
Starring – Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 104 minutes