Women Talking proves that dialogue can supercharge a film no less successfully than action. The box office blockbusters of our era are short on talk and long on CGI, hardly more than a few lame jokes and the odd sentence required to introduce the next fight or explosion. Canadian director, Sarah Polley, has reversed this ratio, giving us a story in which conversation holds centre stage, with the action supplied by brief flashbacks and cutaways. The film deserves its Best Picture nomination at this year’s Oscars, although it must be long odds to win.
The setting is rural America – an isolated religious community coming to grips with a life-changing crisis. A group of men have been sneaking into women’s bedrooms, doping them with an animal tranquiliser and raping them in their sleep. As the attacks continued, they grew more savage, taking in older women and children. When a victim woke up covered in blood or bruises, she was told it was a demon, or simply that it was only her imagination. But no degree of imagination can take a woman’s virginity or make her pregnant.
We enter when the attackers have already been discovered and shipped off to the authorities in a nearby town. The men from the community have gone to try and bail them out and bring them home. Left alone, the women meet in a hayloft to decide what they are going to do. There are three options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Given the gravity of the situation, it might seem as if leaving were the only possible course, but it’s not easy to escape a hermetic, faith-based community when it’s the only life most of the speakers have known.
The debate is a kind of Socratic dialogue that occasionally grows heated. Participants are divided over three generations, with two older women, Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy), leading the way. Agata’s daughter, Ona (Rooney Mara), who is pregnant to her unknown assailant, has much to say, as does Greta’s daughter, Mariche (Jessie Buckley). Where Ona is calm and even a little sardonic, Mariche is angry. Her domestic life is complicated because she is married to a violent drunk who terrorises her and their daughter, Autje (Kate Hallett). The latter acts as the film’s disembodied narrator looking back on the events of her childhood.
The minutes of the meeting are being kept by August (Ben Whishaw), perhaps the only sympathetic male in the town. August was forced to leave the community because his late mother asked too many questions, but he returned with a college degree and is now a teacher for the boys. The women receive only the most rudimentary education and are mostly illiterate. It’s no secret that August is in love with Ona, so he has a personal stake in whether the women decide to stay or go.
There is a core of sharply defined supporting characters, including Ona’s sister, Salome (Claire Foy), who is filled with murderous rage, after discovering that her small daughter has been infected with a sexually transmitted disease. There’s Mariche’s younger sister, Mejal (Michelle Macleod), and Melvin (August Winter) – a young woman, formerly known as Nettie, who has taken on the persona of a man following the assaults, and now refuses to speak a single word. Frances McDormand’s character, Scarface Janz, bails out of the discussion early, being committed to staying put, regardless of the men’s outrages.
Women Talking is based on a novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, who found her subject in the real story of a Mennonite settlement in Bolivia. In 2011 seven men from this community were convicted for hundreds of rapes perpetrated on drugged victims aged from 5 to 65.
Toews tried to imagine the feelings of the women who had been subjected to such an ordeal within an austere, devout congregation. The movie dramatises the issues as they arise, beginning with the realisation that the rapes are not random crimes, but closely connected to the way women are viewed within the community, primarily as mothers and housekeepers who have no need to read or write. These roles are enforced by Church doctrine, decided by a group of male elders.
As their ties to the Church are strong, the women were accepting of their lot until the abuses began. The difficulty of getting their complaints heard, and the fact that most of the men appear to feel sympathy for the rapists rather than their victims, has destroyed their sense of security. The men seem to believe the best way to proceed is for the women to forgive their attackers, who will then be allowed to rejoin the flock.
For those women who argue that the only solution is to leave, it’s unthinkable that their rapists should be allowed to reassume their customary roles. They can imagine the nightmare starting all over again.
On the other hand, it’s terrible to leave their homes, and those men who are their friends and family. The outside world is a scary place for a group of women who have lived such a cloistered existence and wish to maintain their religious beliefs. The radical alternative is a breakaway, matriarchal community where men no longer make the rules.
When a car collecting census material intrudes into this closed domain, it blares out the Monkees singing I’m a Believer. This may be heavy-handed irony on the director’s part, but it also alerts us that this claustrophobic community is not a thing of centuries past, but the here-and-now. Perhaps the perfect companion film may be Gloriavale (2022), the New Zealand documentary about a contemporary religious community rife with abuse.
The director describes Women Talking as “an act of female imagination” – but the sexual politics make up only one strand of a story that asks us to imagine what we would do if the very foundations of our lives collapsed and everything we believe was rendered suddenly problematic. The women talk their way through their own private apocalypse and arrive at a solution. More topically, with the United States turning back the clock on abortion and women’s rights, this film makes a timely case for female self-determination. Christian forgiveness rings hollow if it means wilfully returning to a state of woeful powerlessness. As the wise old Agata argues, “forgiveness can, in some instances, be confused with permission.”
Directed by Sarah Polley
Written by Sarah Polley & Miriam Toews, based on a book by Miriam Toews
Starring: Rooney Mara, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Emily Mitchell, Judith Ivey, Liv McNeil, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, August Winter, Vivien Endicott Douglas
USA, M, 104 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 18 February, 2023