Directed by Sarah Polley
Review by Iva Apostolova
This movie’s country of origin is listed as the U.S., allowing it to enter this year’s OSCAR race in two categories (it is nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay), but I consider it a Canadian production. It is directed and co-written by the Canadian artistic treasure Sarah Polley, and it has a sizeable Canadian cast. The movie is based on the 2018 novel of the same name by the Canadian writer Miriam Toews, who also co-wrote the script. (Fun fact: Toews is from Manitoba, the daughter of Mennonite parents). Women Talking is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. Albeit not competing in the cinematography category, I feel it would’ve had a decent chance there, too.
Although the movie is an excellent depiction of what it takes for a group of people to reach a united decision (as a matter of fact, I have already added it to my Ethics curriculum), it is not one of those stuffy, over-intellectualized pieces that barely pass for a motion picture. On the contrary, it is cinematographically breathtaking: almost monochrome (shot in very dark green and gray tones); the close-ups of the faces of the girls and women, young and old, without makeup, are so hauntingly beautiful that I found myself simply transfixed. Nothing in Women Talking is gratuitous – each word, each facial expression is carefully measured. But in contrast to the stark austerity of the human portraits in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, here with each frame the viewer is bathed in the warmth and liveliness of the onscreen characters.
Polley has somehow managed to make the story both universal/symbolic and unique to the North American cultural and historical landscape. An unspecified modern-day religious colony, whose main trait is pacifism, has come to a fork in the road. The women, who are prevented from receiving even basic education, have suffered a series of sexual assaults by the men of the colony and now must decide what to do. The choices are stay-and-forgive (in other words, do nothing), stay-and-fight or leave. The vote is a tie between stay-and-fight and leave. And so, three generations of women from the oldest families, portrayed by the Americans Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey and Rooney Mara, the English Claire Foy, the Irish Jessie Buckley and the Canadian Sheila McCarthy, gather in the hayloft, where most of the movie takes place, to make the final decision. The only man whose face is discernible and whose words are heard is August, played by the English phenomenon Ben Whishaw. The rest of the men of the colony, on account of their crimes, are left faceless and voiceless.
What follows is an exquisite demonstration of critical thinking and dialectics (the process of dialoguing for the purpose of reaching a decision). It reminded me of the black-and-white staple Twelve Angry Men (for those unfamiliar with the 1957 classic, starring Henry Fonda, the whole movie unfolds behind the closed doors of a court room in which a jury in a murder trial has to reach a verdict).
With plenty of flashbacks and cinematic interludes, the viewer is treated to a rare sight: women, seemingly casually chatting (and sometimes singing) end up articulating, without pomp or finger-wagging, poignant truths about love, sex, marriage, gender roles, forgiveness and freedom. Marxist, existentialist, classical feminist (à la Simone de Beauvoir), and theological ideas are spelled out with such clarity and compassion by seemingly illiterate women that I secretly felt like August, the minute taker, who humbly but hungrily records every word, every pause in the conversation. The women’s hurt and rage is palpable in each recantation of the brutal attacks. And yet, despite the personal clashes, more often than not a result of the sustained physical and emotional wounds, the women manage to stay the course. Because despite everything, what brings them together is the fact that they are the ones whose bodies and souls bear the marks of giving and sustaining life.
In one of the final scenes, Jessie Buckley’s character Mariche concludes that the goal was never to avenge oneself or to submit to coerced forgiveness but instead to always seek freedom to make choices for oneself as well as for one’s children, to be able to think without duress and to love peacefully. In the end, the women reach a difficult decision, a decision that both withstands the test of logic dictated by the intellect and, at the same time, is at ease with one’s core beliefs residing in the heart.
Running time: 1h 44m
Rating: 14 A
In theatres everywhere
Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College and a film aficionado.