Director: Sarah Polley (USA). Year of Release: 2022
It’s 2010, though from the look of the people and their farming equipment, it could be many centuries ago. We’re in a Mennonite community where most people have Dutch-German or Biblical first names, and everyone is very devout. We hear a girl’s voice telling an unborn baby that “this story begins before you were born”. She promptly describes waking up with the feeling of hands that had ravaged her during the night.
We gradually learn that the community’s menfolk have been drugging their sisters, daughters, and other women, and raping them. When the women woke up on discomfort, they were blamed for impurity or told it was the work of Satan. The last case provoked the intervention of police, as some women fought back. Seven men have been arrested, causing all the menfolk to go to the next village in an attempt to bail them out. The women have a day, 2 days max, on their own.
Just before they left, the men said that on their return, the women would be expected to forgive the rapists. If they refused, they could be thrown out of the community and denied eternal salvation. The women immediately call a council and organise a vote on what happens now. They have 3 options – do nothing, stay and fight, or leave en masse. There is a single ballot paper with each option represented by a picture, as girls are denied an education, and they are illiterate.
The vote results in a tie between fighting and fleeing – only a small minority believes that things should continue as before. Three families are appointed to talk things through and to decide on an option. When Scarface Janz, who had supported doing nothing, leaves the discussion, these three families become two. Minutes are taken by August, a teacher whose family had been expelled from the community for asking too many questions, and is the only man still in town.
Can I just take a moment her to mention what a wealth of acting talent is on display here? Scarface Janz is a cameo role from the film’s producer Frances McDormand. Joining her, we have not one but two Lisbeth Salanders – albeit from the Not as Good US films. But Rooney Mara and Claire Foy are still pretty good actors, as are Jessie Buckley and Ben Wishart as August. And these are just the ones who have been in a couple of famous films already.
The different family members exhibit a range of opinions, and each one is allowed a number of speeches to put forward their point of view. Salome, seeking revenge, wants to fight. Mariche is outraged but exhausted. Greta is older and is looking for a workable compromise. Ona, pregnant through rape like so many people before her, prevaricates. Meanwhile the young girls present start to find all the toing and froing a bit boring. You must concede that they have a point.
Because although Women Talking has a great concept, the set up is not without flaws. For all the important discussion, some key issues are just not addressed. Just what does Stay and Fight mean? How can they overturn power structures which are weighted so strongly against them? As their religion declares itself to be pacifist, what could their resistance look like? And isn’t the argument that fighting back will provoke violence just ignoring the actual violence that is already happening?
Other arguments are interesting enough on an abstract level, but can distract us from the main discussion. At what age do boys stop requiring protection from their mothers and become part of the existential patriarchal threat? For that matter, how are the women supposed to treat August who is clearly on their side and has a rebellious history (not to mention the potential relationship with Ona), but is unable to be fully part of the group? So many reports. So many questions.
About an hour of the film consists of the women each making fairly abstract points and not really engaging with what the others are saying. At one point August tries to move the discussion on, but is told that it is not his place. He is just there to take the minutes. Then after an hour of pontifications and a discussion that reaches such a level of abstraction that no-one is actually saying anything, all of a sudden they have all agreed on a way forward with no obvious dissent.
Women Talking is clearly on the right side and contains some superb acting performances. It is also indubitably a Good Thing to have an ensemble piece where nearly all the leads are women. And yet, I reluctantly confess to find it hard to feel any warmth for it. Too often, the discussion seems like an academic exercise. But where is the soul? Where is the anger? The opening titles introduce it as “an act of female imagination”. Maybe an act of female rage would have been better.
Setting the film in a Mennonite community carries with it a couple of dangers, not least that the audience will blame real violence against women on their crazy religious ways. While the film is clearly addressing issues raised by #MeToo, the specificity of the response of women who fear leaving their menfolk because they will be denied divine redemption sometimes gets in the way of showing the many reasons why women remain in abusive relationships.
Without using too many plot spoilers, it should be clear that the film rejects trying to wrong injustice and instead endorses running away. In some circumstances, when the balance of forces are so inexorably against you, this may be the only sensible option. But the film does not even consider these forces. Of course, some women have no choice, but I’m not sure that we are currently in a situation where women should make a point of avoiding confronting their abusers.
In short, this is a film which opens interesting and necessary discussions, but seems too interested in abstract discussion to land many punches. Good as a film, but it is trying – and often failing – to do much more.