'Women Talking,' a harrowing yet exhilarating drama

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday January 17, 2023
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Claire Foy (right) and cast members in 'Women Talking' <br>(MGM/Orion Pictures)
Claire Foy (right) and cast members in 'Women Talking'
(MGM/Orion Pictures)

Based on previous comments from previous film festivals, my press invitation to see the new film "Women Talking" (MGM/Orion Pictures) implied that one would be a better person after watching this movie. Appearing to be a very talky theatrical play, its "medicinal" didactic/intellectual qualities might overshadow any emotional resonances.

Reassuringly, these assumptions were misplaced, which is not to say that "Women Talking" is a rip-roaring crowd-pleaser or a consistently riveting movie, but neither is it a static crashing bore. The ending is exhilarating with an incomparable once-in-a-generation younger cast, wholly committed to the film's message of building together a better world.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara, and Claire Foy in 'Women Talking' (MGM/Orion Pictures)  

Fight or flight
Based on Miriam Toews' 2018 novel, "Women Talking" is an "act of female imagination" inspired by the real-life nightmare at a cloistered Mennonite community in Bolivia where 130 women members (from ages 5 to 65) were repeatedly drugged with a cattle tranquilizer and raped in the middle of the night by at least eight men for five years. They were then told their injuries were the result of dreams, "ghosts," or Satan. When a young girl tore off the mask of one of her attackers and recognized him, he eventually named other men. They were arrested and later sentenced to 25 years in prison.

At the film's opening, the remaining men have left to post bail for the accused perpetrators. The women representing three families have less than two days to vote whether to: (1) forgive the men and remain, maintaining the status quo; (2) stay and fight by seeking revenge; (3) leave, even though they've never lived anywhere else, and risk excommunication and eternal damnation. Do they take their boys with them? And what is the cut-off age?

There are no easy black-and-white alternatives, but just lots of messy questions. The clock is ticking and if they flee, they must do so before the men return. Whatever decision is made has real-life complexities and repercussions. The women are illiterate, religiously obedient and subservient to their husbands who essentially decide everything for them.

The pictorial ballot is tallied by the gentle August (Ben Whishaw), a schoolteacher who was once exiled by the community, who also transcribes notes and minutes as a record and analysis of each woman's opinion during this pivotal meeting.

The rest of this chamber drama movie becomes an extended listening session, one long constructive conversation in a hay barn. Each woman has her showcase speech moment. To come to any sort of agreement, they must pay attention to each other, despite differing belief systems and ideas. And remember these are women who aren't used to thinking about what they want or their accompanying ramifications.

Francis McDormand in 'Women Talking'  

Compassionate process
They attempt to find a morally acceptable solution congruent with their continuing religious beliefs, which are never questioned. Some will change their minds after being exposed to an opposing viewpoint, learning compassion and understanding through this process.

Fiery Salome (Claire Foy) almost vibrates with outrage and cannot forgive the violence done to her daughter. Yet there's also the beatific soft-voiced Ona (Rooney Mara), who is pregnant after being raped. Then we're confronted by the cynical Mariche (Jesse Buckley), who was physically abused by her husband, and possesses an almost biblical wrath. Pent-up emotions, especially repressed anger from decades of oppression, delivered in a chaotic, often contradictory, but always honest fashion, characterize these debates.

They develop together a battle plan to reckon their fate as well as their children. We admire these women for their courage, their friendship, and are awed by the transformative power of dialogue, forgotten in our individualistic modern-world soliloquies. They are compelled heroically to eclipse their own conditioning, confessing their sad stories to the world.

Writer/director Sarah Polley has wisely chosen not to depict or reenact the rape scenes. But that deafening silence leaves tantalizing clues about them, reinforcing their horrors. And the women aren't afraid to ask if they have passively perpetuated their own violent and unjust system.

Questions about faith, forgiveness, power dynamics, trauma, culpability, sexism, healing, and community emerge. Producer/actress Francis McDormand views the film not as taking down the patriarchy, but "illuminating a matriarchy that's been there since time immemorial." It's not meant as an indictment of a particular group, but a fable on the corruption of absolute power and the corrosive effects of isolationism.

The film moves with unexpected buoyancy to what will seem a natural, even victorious conclusion. As an ensemble, the acting is rapturous and it feels unfair to single out individual performances, but Foy, Buckley, and Wishaw (the world's greatest queer actor) are standouts in a sea of excellence. One can only guess at the resilience of the cast for what must have been a demanding shoot in what emerges as much a movement as a movie.

Provocative ideas
One fair criticism is that there is much heavy material thrown at the audience with little letup, though there are some moments of levity. The film goes for a universal timeless mien, using muted color tones that resembling a faded postcard from the 19th century rather than in 2010. Still, it is hard to imagine this film being made prior to the #MeToo movement, as it is the personification of sexual harassment taken to its direst conclusion.

At certain points, all the verbal jousting with provocative ideas does become wearying, even overwhelming, especially when you parse the etymological difference between fleeing and leaving. For supposedly uneducated women, they're very articulate, sometimes to long-winded proportions.

For queer audiences, there's the Nettie (August Winter) character, who after being raped and impregnated, transitions by wearing men's clothes and asks to be called Melvin, all of which is accepted by the other women.

Also, these Mennonite women, forced to move beyond threats of eternal damnation if they follow a certain course of action, will resonate with LGBTQ viewers routinely condemned by religious groups just for being who they are. As Ona says at one point, "when we've liberated ourselves, we'll have to ask ourselves who we are."

"Women Talking" reveals the devastating impact of sexual violence on women. While not always a pleasant experience, at its core, the film is an intense exercise in hope, that as human beings we can live in a world where we don't hurt each other, physically or emotionally, that we can be kind to each other, no matter who we are or what we believe, personified by the women singing "Nearer my God to Thee" in unison.

Inadvertently, with its barrage of words, the film has much to say about the bitter divisive political partisanship gripping our nation and the imperative of listening to each other, if we have any hope of solving our problems. You may not always like "Women Talking," but you won't forget it.


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