In 2009, widespread occurrences of sexual assault were reported in a Bolivian Mennonite colony called Manitoba. Over 130 women and girls, including young children, had been experiencing violent attacks as they slept, anesthetized by what later turned out to be a tranquilizing spray used for farm animals. Nine men ended up confessing to these assaults and eight would receive prison sentences. The case eventually became infamous after a 2013 VICE article and documentary garnered it more attention, and the horrifying combination of violent misogyny and systemic silencing wrapped up in male-dominated, dogmatic Christianity inspired author Miriam Toews to write Women Talking in 2018. During the period in which Toews would have written the novel, #MeToo was also on the bleeding edge of history. Harvey Weinstein and many other Hollywood men had just been exposed as predators and Trump’s presidency was only halfway over.
These things form a kind of fog over the more concrete proceedings of Sarah Polley’s film adaptation of Women Talking. Much like the book, it’s a kind of loose treatise on the violence of men, womens’ solidarity, and faith, and while in a basic sense Women Talking could be seen as a fictionalization of what happened in Manitoba, it feels also like a broader conversation about a specifically White, Christian, and American manifestation of misogyny, and how women enmeshed in those structures negotiate aspects of their agency. But while Toews describes her novel as a “reaction through fiction” to the Manitoba case, the film of Women Talking takes on an abstract feeling, like a set of philosophical dialogues, resulting in a formally staid but thematically bustling work that sometimes thrives and sometimes falters due to its constraints, although it never stops being interesting.
As in Manitoba, the women in Toews’ and Polley’s Mennoite Colony have endured ongoing mass rapes in their sleep perpetrated by several men among their flock. While the entire adult male population has left to bail the perpetrators out of jail, the women are told they must come to forgive said rapists or be expelled from the colony, and therefore the Kingdom of Heaven. Eight women gather in a barn to discuss three options: stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Their decision will ostensibly be followed by everyone, including children. This set-up yields quite a bit of fascinating discussion, but also a few hard-to-ignore issues. The barn acts as a physical meeting space, but also a metaphorical thought space, and the majority of the film situates itself within these confines. If anyone has a problem with Women Talking, it will likely stem from this perceived sense of immobility. But really, setting doesn’t pose so much a problem as how well the material works in that setting.
One might consider the prospect of keeping a dialogue-heavy, almost single-location film cinematic a challenge, although filmed conversations or stagy movies have always had their place in cinema. Lumet, Malle, and Bergman all produced milestone films in such modes. Sarah Polley has no trouble directing within those parameters, either. The inherent cinematic quality of barns works to her benefit. Multiple levels and surfaces, the texture of hay, wood, rope, dust, and steel illuminated by natural light converge into a diagrammatic dynamism, where blocking and editing can easily be utilized to make action out of stillness. Indeed, the “action” of the film constitutes shifts in attitudes and the push and pull between fear and righteous indignation, and so necessitates figurative gestures in the form of composition, editing, and production design. And to break any potential monotony, Polley departs from the physical space at key moments, letting voiceover proceed over lyrical, visual passages of both pastoral Mennonite life and fleeting, nightmarish flashbacks of the womens’ post-assault awakenings. Where the film sometimes runs into trouble is not in having so much dialogue in one place, but in the quality of the dialogue itself, and who’s saying it.
Topical influences loom over much of the script in a way that occasionally feels didactic. One particularly good illustration of this happens when the women ask August (Ben Whishaw), the sole adult male occupant remaining and their (trusted, educated) minute-taker, whether or not fourteen-year-old males could be considered dangerous. He says yes, going into a lengthy explanation of the tumultuous inner-lives of young adolescent boys that is beautifully summarized and impeccably accurate to the point that it could be used as the basis of a formal inquiry into the roots of patriarchy. However, in that same way, the moment feels unnatural, like someone reading from an essay and not speaking off-the-cuff. But is this a real problem? That’s the conundrum of Women Talking. It does so many things that a cinema-inclined audience should naturally feel resistant to, but then some really poignant closeup or the aforementioned knowledge of theatrical cinema traditions precludes it from being a work fit for only the stage. The film’s formal aspects result in a cycle of resistance and absorption that makes equivocation over the overall success of its approach inevitable.
The performances of these monologues, however, result in the more unequivocal flaws of the film. Three women can be said to lead the discourse: Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), and Mariche (Jessie Buckley). Of the three, Buckley is the most talented, but even she seems unable to strike the balance of presentation and interiority that the film demands. It’s no coincidence that the best performances come from the more seasoned TV and theater actresses. Judith Ivey as Ona’s mother, Agata, and Sheila McCarthy as Mariche’s mother, Greta, run away with nearly every scene because they have decades of experience working in writers’ media on both stage and screen. Mara, while perfectly adept as a film actress, doesn’t have the chops for this kind of project. Her restrained method can’t withstand such robust exchanges and monologues. This combined with her character’s supernatural grace ends up sinking her into a flat, angelic archetype. The character of Salome channels the rage and indignation of the entire colony, but the casting of Foy, who frequently mistakes yelling for acting, dilutes the potency of the role. Whishaw remains mostly one note, but he plays the note well. All in all, however, so much of the acting in the film feels specifically constructed for use in Oscar night clips.
These uneven performances don’t always compliment the film’s formal constraints, highlighting the precariousness of its designation as both a chamber drama and a didactic thought exercise. Had there been more life-like characters on the page or the proper cast to pull such archetypal performances off, Women Talking may have gone down easier. Then again, it ought not to go down too easily. One thing is for certain—while Women Talking doesn’t have to be loved, it should definitely be seen. | Nic Champion