If it wasn’t already evident by the deft touch she shows in her films, Sarah Polley, the director and screenwriter of Women Talking, has great timing. The movie is rolling out into theaters just after American women voters have turned out en masse to tell conservative lawmakers to fuck off. Which is exactly what the women in Women Talking have to do, only they don’t say the fuck off part out loud, because God.
The violence that underpins this story – a group of men in a Mennonite community are habitually drugging and raping the young women in the middle of the night – may sound like a handmaid dystopia, but we all know the gaslighting over and excusing of extreme misogyny is all too real in a strict and primitive patriarchal society like this one, and the one our own conservative leaders envision.
Polley wisely chooses not to depict any of the violent incidences, instead focusing on the aftermath as the community’s women come together in a hayloft to hash out what they should do about the abuse they and their daughters have been forced to endure.
As these women can’t read or write, drawings represent the three choices they can scratch their X next to: forgive and forget; stay and fight; leave. What’s at stake is nothing less than the afterlife, as the religion the women were indoctrinated with teaches them that they cannot get into heaven without the blessing of their men.
Following the novel on which it’s based, Polley’s script makes sure every position is given equal time. Frances McDormand is the Ginny Thomas/Amy Coney Barrett of the group, falling on religious doctrine to excuse the abuse. Rooney Mara, Judith Ivey and others represent the steady center, while Claire Foy is the revolutionary, arguing to kill the rapists. Jessie Buckley gets the toughest role, an abused mother of an abused daughter whose anger flies everywhere but where it should.
This all might sound heavy-handed and stagey, and could have been with a different director. But Polley knows how to use her medium to take the story beyond a filmed essay. As in the book, the men are away to the city to bail out the arrested rapists, and Polley uses light, camera angles and sound design to heighten the threat of violence upon their return that hangs over the women’s deliberations. The shadowy hayloft where they gather feels dangerous, its high, isolated position leaving no easy escape, and the discussion taking place there is kept engrossing as Polley shifts the mood in erratic spurts. The talking is broken up with scenes depicting the few moments of peace the women have in their lives, interacting with nature, friends and their children. These are the things they can still have after they leave the men, and realizing this seems to get them past the last fears holding them back.
Women Talking opens with the title “An act of female imagination”. Along with the narration by one of the characters relating the story to her daughter from a better future, the phrase keeps a light on at the end of the dark tunnel these women must traverse. Yet it’s also gutting that ‘imagination’ suggests that what these women end up doing is a fantasy, a film fantasy and by inference, a real world one.
“An act of female imagination” could also describe the midterm elections, though, so in our world maybe the fantasy just inched a little closer to reality.
Predicted Oscar nominations: 6
Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actress x 2, Supporting Actor