God only knows how long the women of an isolated religious community that is almost Mennonite but not quite have been regularly drugged with cow tranquilizer and raped at night. The women were told that ghosts, demons or even Satan were raping them as punishment for their wrongdoing.
They believed this lie until two young girls saw one of the rapists running back to the bed across the field one night. Some of the men were taken into custody, but the ones who didn’t go into the city to make bail arrangements. The women of the colony are left alone for a short time and have about 48 hours to decide what they want to do with their lives.
Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking” is based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. It has a fierce intelligence, immense force and a visionary sense of how to remap the world we know along more compassionate (matriarchal) lines.
“This story begins before you were born,” says the film’s young narrator, Autje played by Kate Hallett. She is telling these events to a specific child while also telling them as a timeless moral fable, set in an eternal yesterday that allows for an ever-possible tomorrow, even though it also takes place in a specific year not too far in the past. As the story continues, Autje’s voice, along with the sun setting outside the barn, will be used to keep track of time and build up the tension of the men’s possible return. “We had 24 hours to think about what kind of world you would be born into.”
The “we” she is talking about is a group of eight people from two different families who have been chosen to break a tie in the colony-wide vote about whether the women should leave or stay and fight. These people are loud and memorable. Only the quiet and scared Scarface Janz (producer Frances McDormand, in a symbolic role with little screen time) likes the third option, which is to forgive the men and go back to the way things were before.
The different groups are not clearly split or set in stone. Ona, played by Rooney Mara, has her head in the clouds and talks about their situation like a philosopher, even though the baby in her belly, a gift from one of her unknown attackers, would seem to be the most concrete reminder of what’s at stake. Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who can’t do anything about her anger and is consumed by the helplessness that comes with it, is a natural counterpoint. Salome, Ona’s older sister, played by Claire Foy, takes this anger to an even higher level and insists that the women should use their divine wrath when the men return. But should her son, who is about to turn 18 and is on the verge of becoming a man himself, be counted as one of them?
Agata, Ona and Salome’s mother (played by Judith Ivey), is a wise pacifist. Greta, Mariche’s mother (played by Sheila McCarthy), uses her horses Ruth and Cheryl to make her wise words funny. Even though it’s hard to imagine, “Women Talking” is an upbeat, fast-paced movie with a sharp wit and a ready sense of humor, even though its characters often laugh so hard they wish they could cry.
Polley trusts in the inherent horror of a story in which every woman has been raped by her own brother or father, including young Autje and her friend Neitje (Liv McNeil). However, she doesn’t dwell on it more than is necessary because even the smallest bit of self-pity is a luxury these women can’t afford right now. Their grief is so mixed up with their fear, anger, love and hope that every reaction shot and camera move feels like a possible revelation. “It’s the end of the world and a call to prayer,” one character says about the group’s first meeting. It is both.”
The level of acting that makes that possible—that invites a biblically awesome level of vastness into every close-up and lets long dialogue scenes play out with the excitement and skill of an action movie—is so amazing that I’m tempted to ignore it. As an unexpectedly clear-eyed dreamer, Mara is rich, sure of herself and full of surprises. Buckley, however, chips away at her character’s defensive hardness with such controlled precision that you can feel the exact moment she hits the bone. Foy has the most animated role and, as a result, the most show-stopping moments, but it’s fantastic to see how she amps up the “You’re all a bunch of boys!” energy she brought to “First Man.”
Ivey and McCarthy are the most critical parts of Polley’s ensemble cast because they keep the movie going when it seems like all hope is lost, but all the actors are great. Ben Whishaw’s character, a bullied school teacher with a sad past who stays to take notes at the women’s meeting, sometimes seems a little over-the-top. But his spirit is broken for a good reason and the too-sensitive-to-touch romance he has with Ona makes sense as a way to protect himself.
A non-binary actor August Winter is also great in the role of Nettie/Melvin, the resident daycare leader whose recent transition across the colony’s gender line raises urgent questions about who the women should take with them if they decide to leave. What makes a man in the minds of these religiously taught people, who just a few days ago thought demons were robbing them? When boys like Salome’s son lose their innocence and maybe even more important, when is it too late for them to get it back?
As the women argue about the difference between leaving and fleeing, between being afraid of the unknown and hating what is known, each knotted question leads to another. The conclusions they come to are very important, but what makes Polley’s movie so special is how it shows how the characters come to those conclusions. The thinking sets them free and makes way for what the film’s opening text calls “an act of female imagination.”
If the digital cinematography hadn’t been so musty and rotten, that act of imagination might have been even more inspiring to watch. Polley and her usually great DP Luc Montpellier (“Take This Waltz”) have desaturated “Women Talking” in a way that suffocates its images in an artificial bleakness the movie avoids, dulls the inner light that so many of its shots have and sometimes makes this beautiful movie look like a real eyesore. It’s easy to see why Polley and Montpellier were inspired by the look of Larry Towell’s black-and-white photos, but the compromise they make between lifelike color and black-and-white made me desperately wish they had picked one or the other.
But a movie so focused on imagination can only be ruined by the colors of what we get to see and “Women Talking” is such a powerful tribute to the stories we tell ourselves and the stories women tell each other that it will always be more alive in our memories than it ever was in front of our eyes. Polley’s movie is like dragonflies that migrate over such long distances that only their grandchildren make it to their destination (Buckley’s character Mariche will roll her eyes right out of her head at this point).
It is looking deep inside itself and at the horizon for the strength to imagine a better future, one that is more based on compassion than a one-sided power that needs people to rule over to prove itself. “Women Talking” thinks that it’s out there and that its characters might find it even if they don’t have a map or have to make their maps.
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