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Women Talking is short on dramatics, but not on drama
It’s hard to talk about Women Talking without making it sound more demanding than even an arty-farty like me can take. Lots of movies — usually the kind that treat political or social subjects — make demands on the viewer, but these may succeed by offering some kind of recompense that exceeds the effort. The easiest way to do that is with flash and rattle and titillation, which is the basis of a long, lurid Problem Picture tradition stretching from Häxan to The Phenix City Story to the films of Oliver Stone and beyond. If it’s not that, then you’ve either got something For Intellectuals Only or a failure, and possibly both.
Women Talking goes another way. It has, broadly speaking, a feminist theme, which in itself is no impediment to pleasure; so did 2020’s Promising Young Woman, for example, which conveyed its message in a gripping horror story of violence, betrayal, and revenge. But those were right on the surface: in Women Talking, the violence, betrayal, and revenge are all offscreen, as in a Greek tragedy. It is a very severe movie with a spartan narrative frame. But in its own tough-minded way it delivers the goods.
In an unnamed but seemingly Mennonite community apparently (but not necessarily) somewhere in America at some time in the recent past (a clue puts it at 2010), men have been drugging and raping women and girls for an unspecified amount of time; one of them has been caught at it and has under questioning named others. The men of the community are trying to bail their rapist brethren out, and the women are meeting to decide what to do about it.
We learn all this literally in the first minutes. We see the men only as distant forms and shadows — except for the schoolteacher August, who, being literate, takes the minutes of their meetings — and the boys only in gauzy memory form; the rest is pretty much what it says on the box.
Though the acting is excellent, this is not a tour de force vehicle with showy histrionics. There is only a little bit of shouting. The discussions are never jacked up in the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf manner or even the 12 Angry Men manner. The meetings are run like formal debates at which the two viable solutions — stay and fight, or leave — are discussed.
The debates are mostly cool, without any competitive edge or even much sense of urgency. The older women in particular are very good at keeping things on track, despite their lack of formal education; when Mariche, somewhat given to didacticism and eye-rolls, barks at August for using the “college” word “literate,” elder Agata cheerfully remonstrates: “We all know what the word means.” The young girls of the community are also present and even take part in discussions. Director Sarah Polley’s strategy of basically locking us in with the women makes sure we see them throughout controlling their fate, with the question being what they will decide to do rather than whether the men will let them get away with it.
The women focus on the pros and cons of each choice, but also the philosophical dimensions of their dilemma. For example, when Mariche asks whether it might not be that the captured assailant lied and the men named by him are not guilty, Ona — the most thoughtful and soft-spoken of the group, visibly pregnant with her rapist’s baby, and showing clear affection for August, though not quite at the moon-calf level of his feelings for her — extends that theme: Maybe even the men who are innocent of the crimes are not innocent of making them possible, and maybe all of them, even the perpetrators, are deserving of the mercy their creed preaches — but the women cannot grant forgiveness until they have removed themselves and their children from danger.
It’s not all debate club. Salome, the woman whose anger is most visible (it is suggested one of the attackers raped her young daughter), gets hot a few times, and suggests leaving is necessary not only to avoid the men’s violence on her but also her violence on them; when Mariche challenges Mejal, who has been subject to spells since her attack, asking why her pain is so outsized compared to that of the others — a very believable post-trauma response — her mother Greta comes to her with an unexpected apology for counseling her not to reveal the abuse that Mariche’s own husband continues to visit on her. It’s a quiet speech but it has a tremendous emotional impact.
Toward the end I confess I began to worry whether the women would be able to effect their plan, and felt myself urging them to hurry up about it; the old movie tropes, like endemic misogyny, die hard, I guess. But as I said, the movie is about making the decision, not what comes after, and that much is enough.
I’m reluctant to single out any of the actors, as this is real ensemble playing and its creation of a believable community (and all in one barn loft!) is its great achievement, but I was especially impressed by the elders played by Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, who embody great personal power, as leaders must, as well as — appearing only as faint shimmers on the surface — deep sorrow and pain.