Monday, February 20, 2023


Writer-director-actor Sarah Polley returns to our screens with the critically-acclaimed WOMEN TALKING.  It is based on a book by Miriam Toews which is in turn based on the true story of mass sexual assault in a Mennonite community in Bolivia in 2011.  Hundreds of women were gassed into unconsciousness in their own homes and raped.  When they complained to the Elders they were gaslit. Finally they caught a man in the act and had to decide whether to forgive, leave or stay and fight. 

This is the decision portrayed in this film. The men have gone to bail the attackers leaving the women home with the schoolteacher (Ben Whishaw).  They convene a secret vote, and when that is tied, nominate a handful of women to debate the issue and make a decision for them all, with the schoolteacher taking minutes.  The stakes could not be higher - earthly safety from attack versus expulsion from the community and therefore from the kingdom of heaven.

The range of female experience and reaction is circumscribed by the womens' subjugation. They tell us that they barely have the language to articulate what has been done to their bodies. They cannot read or write and do not possess a map with which to leave. Their religious belief and in-grained misogyny complicates their decision. But even within the limited scope of their intellectual freedom there is disagreement. Jessie Buckley's character is married to an abusive husband but sees no possibility of escape, having been told explicitly and implicitly to forgive and endure all her life.  On the other end of the spectrum, Claire Foy's character wants to fight and kill and be avenged. When we learn why she is so particularly angry it is a blow upon a bruise. 

I suspect that how far viewers respond to this film will depend on how far they are willing to accept that it is a "wild act of female imagination".  An opening title card tells us that it is, of necessity, incredible and an on-the-nose allegory of the Me Too movement.  The women are therefore incredibly articulate, despite their lack of formal education, and the dialogue and blocking can come across like a university debate on a theatre stage.  

I was willing to grant the film my suspension of disbelief, and indeed was given no choice in the matter because the power of the subject matter and performances carried me forward into this strange, anachronistic, hermetically-sealed world. It seems wrong to single out a particular player in a very strong ensemble cast, but Sheila McCarthy as Greta had a devastatingly quiet power that cut me off at the knees. 

But the visionary mind here is that of Sarah Polley, which is why it feels so bizarre that this film should be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, but Polley should be overlooked for Best Director. 

It is her vision that centres the film on the female experience, and never shows us one of the attackers, and barely lets Ben Whishaw speak except in response to what the women need. It is Polley who decides to show the attacks in flashback and from above, making us feel the horror without ever being exploitative or pandering to the male gaze. It is Polley who has the confidence to sentence us to "merely" watch women talking - women who have hitherto been forbidden from having a voice, or thoughts, or liberty. It is Polley who creates a vision of a dark, claustrophobic, colour-drained world that feels so anachronistic that even a pop song by The Monkees seems shockingly new. 

The result is a film that feels urgent, and relevant, and shocking but also sadly not so. A film that shows female anger and resignation, and challenges us to ask what kind of world we have created that these women might escape to, and what consequence their male ally will face. 

WOMEN TALKING does what all great films do - it makes us ask questions of ourselves and our society while at the same time impacting us emotionally. I felt deeply invested in the fate of these women, and heartbroken at the choice presented to them.

WOMEN TALKING is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 104 minutes. It played Telluride, Toronto and London 2022. It was released in the USA on December 23rd and in the UK last week.

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