Women Talking

women+talking

If you only have two choices, how much choice do you have? That’s one of many questions raised in Women Talking (opening in the U.S. on December 23), a dialogue-driven drama about a group of Mennonite women trying to decide what to do: fight or flee. It’s recently been revealed that some of the men in the community have been dosing some of the women (and girls) with cow tranquilizer and raping them while they’re unconscious at night. The men responsible have been taken away, but they’ll be out on bail soon, and will come back to the colony — and to the women. Three initial choices are laid out for the women: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The last two options finish in a tie, so eight of the women discuss whether to stay or go, and before long the notion of staying recedes into the distance.

Women Talking is the third narrative feature directed by Sarah Polley (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), who seems drawn to material that shows people in all their unlovely complications. Bur her gaze is warm, not cold, and here she simply provides a space for the frequently voiceless to speak. What’s compelling about the drama, aside from the ticking-clock structure and the ghastly situation itself, is the various women’s responses to the assaults and to the realities of the aftermath. If they don’t forgive the rapists, they will be denied entry to Heaven. If they do forgive the rapists, how can that possibly please God? Why didn’t He stop the violence in the first place? And so forth.

The movie, as well as the Miriam Toews novel it’s adapting, is based on an actual incident in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2011. Questions of faith are prominent in the women’s discussions, but don’t really dominate. Some of the issues, I guess, would be brought up in a less devout group of women. One particularly bitter abuse survivor, Mariche (Jessie Buckley), angrily asks another woman in the group why the assault seems to have affected her more than the others. It might seem an uncommonly callous thing to ask until you learn that Mariche is routinely beaten by her husband. The violence inflicted on her has blown out a large chunk of her ability to empathize with others’ pain. Not every victim is as kindly and “nice” as some would like them to be, and Polley knows this and shows it.

Those with the patience to sit and listen will be rewarded with some top-notch performances; Polley even gets a subtly warm turn from Rooney Mara as Ona, whose encounter with a nighttime rapist has left her pregnant. Ona is also sweet on August (Ben Whishaw), a young man from an excommunicated family who has come to the colony as a teacher for the boys. (The girls aren’t taught to read or write.) I kept expecting August to turn out to be slimy, but no, Polley does believe “not all men” (a character even says it). Her film privileges women but is more concerned with what they choose to do with the information they’ve been given. One survivor has changed their name from Nettie to Melvin, and doesn’t speak to anyone except the children; a whole fascinating movie could be made about Melvin (played by trans nonbinary actor August Winter). 

It’s not a “likable” film — it’s grim, with some dots of humor — but I don’t think it was meant to be. It grapples with the subject of women in a society where their options are limited, and that subject expands beyond the literal scenario in a Mennonite colony the more we let the story wash around our brains. It’s jarring as hell when a truck drives slowly past the community’s house, blaring the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” over a loudspeaker along with a voice encouraging the colonists to come out and be counted for the 2010 census. In a little touch typical of scripter-director Polley’s method here, the teacher August, who left the community for a while to go to university, sings softly along with the song, which he might remember from his time outside. The movie is built out of little human moments like that. If we’re waiting for the women to stop talking and start doing — as a century of male-steered movies have conditioned us to want — we might miss those moments, and the movie. 

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