Movie review: Women Talking

Writer/director Sarah Polley

Women TalkingThe movie Women Talking should get a truth-in-advertising seal. It really is about women talking. It’s what they are talking about that’s noteworthy.

The narrative is based on Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name. In turn, it was “based on a true story of vicious serial rapes in an insular, ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia.” The geography in the movie is not stated, but there is a specific reference to the 2010 Census, which suggests rural locale in the United States, though the speech pattern suggests Canada, where it was filmed.

In the real-life Bolivian community, “from 2005 to 2009, nine men in the Manitoba Colony, using livestock tranquilizers, drugged female victims ranging in age from three to sixty and violently raped them at night. When the girls and women awoke bruised and covered in blood, the men of the colony dismissed their reports as ‘wild female imagination’–even when they became pregnant from the assaults–or punishments from God or by demons for their supposed sins.”

Some of this narrative is incorporated in the movie, briefly shown in flashback. The men in the community are in town, but they are returning in 48 hours. What should the women do? They vote to choose among three options: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the colony. And since none of them can read or write,the tally sheet required pictures to insure that the women knew their choices.

The latter two options tied for the lead, so three families of women are appointed to meet in a barn and decide for the collective. And in doing so, figure out, e.g.,  what “stay and fight” would mean.

More than rhetoric

I know Women Talking could be perceived as another #MeToo movie, and I have seen reviews that suggest just that, which I think is a bit surfacy. Here’s a piece of one review: “WOMEN TALKING is a movie for people who think ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is too subtle an allegory about women being suppressed by the patriarchy.” No; just no.

What intrigued me was how the conversation was framed by their faith in God. Should the men be forgiven? What kind of God is there that would have the women do so? Another review summary I hated: “For all talk of a new order, Women Talking is eager to reassure us of its lack of interest in really rocking the boat, even outright including the phrase ‘not all men.'” These women are are doing a Brand New Thing, and they’re figuring it out, not coming out the gate with the proper framework.

The cast is stellar. It  includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey, and Ben Whishaw.  Sarah Polley, the director and writer of the screenplay, made a deliberate choice of the not-quite-black-and-white motif, perhaps to echo the ambivalence of their choices and the consequences of same.

Incidentally, I really liked Polley’s 2013 documentary Stories We Tell.

My wife and I saw Women Talking at a Saturday matinee in mid-February. There were about a dozen and half people in the theater; there was at least one other male in the audience.

MOVIE REVIEW: Stories We Tell

It shall have to suffice to say that the narrative structure was extremely clever, very much like the layers of an onion being peeled away.

This hasn’t happened in a very long time: the Wife arranged for a babysitter, and we went to a movie about which I knew ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. When we got to the Spectrum Theatre in Albany on Monday night, I noticed on the movie poster that the director of Stories We Tell was Sarah Polley, who starred in the very good, but kind of depressing The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and directed the very good, but kind of depressing Away From Her (2006).

This movie was a documentary about the family of Sarah Polley. There’s a lot of chatter early on with several players you can’t possibly keep track of- but you will soon enough. The conceit of the title is that we can all tell a story, but it may not be the same one, even regarding the same person and the same events.

I could spend two or three paragraphs explaining how the narrative weaves from Sarah recording her father Michael’s recollection of Sarah’s late mother Diane to others remembering her, not always the same way. But it shall have to suffice to say that the narrative structure was extremely clever, very much like the layers of an onion being peeled away.

In the exploration of the story, which involves incredibly personal revelations, it seems that most of the players were in a better place as a result of the journey that the film captured, reconstructing the truth of their collective and individual lives. Sometimes the participants reacted to Sarah as director, whereas other times as daughter or sister, as they muse on family history.

It’s interesting to me that the critics liked it more on Rotten Tomatoes (95%, at this writing) than the movie-going audience (82%). The Wife and I, and especially the guy sitting in front of us, who had a hearty laugh, really liked the film. Yet I noticed that three or four people of the 14-16 people in the room left the film with about 15 minutes to go, when a film technique was revealed; did they think it was a cheat in a documentary? (I thought it was, if not obvious, then a likely tool.)

I don’t really want to say more, except that I think you’ll find it quite worthwhile. If you see it on DVD, try to see it in one sitting to glean the maximum effect.

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