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Women Talking: Thoughtful dialogue is artful cinema

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Jan. 13, 2023 - 7:41 PM

Women Talking: Thoughtful dialogue is artful cinema

The Newnan Times-Herald

Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman


Director: Sarah Polley

Cast: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, and Ben Whishaw

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

In theatrical release

What separates man from beast? Some say it’s the ability to reason, and that unique quality often involves the power of discourse.

“Women Talking” celebrates the importance of collective discussion in a way rarely seen in cinemas. It’s a conversation prompted by hideous sexual abuse by men who treat the women in their community no different than the beasts that plow the fields. Only the command of humanity stands in their way.

Based on the celebrated 2018 novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews, “Women Talking” was one of the best movies of 2022. The story was written in response to real-world events in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in 2011. Several men were ultimately convicted of spraying an animal anesthetic into the homes of women and girls and then raping them while they were unconscious.

The prosecution of those responsible was frustrated by the insular, religious nature of the community. But ultimately, the men were sentenced to lengthy prison terms. “Women Talking” is a fictionalized account of the days following the initial arrest of the criminals.

In the brief time before the release of the accused rapists on bond, a group of women gathers in the loft of an idyllic barn overlooking a beautiful field. Only one man, the community’s teacher, August (Ben Winshaw), is permitted to witness their discussion. August is to take notes.

What exactly happened prior to their gathering in the loft? Screenwriter/director Sarah Polley (Oscar-nominated for 2006’s “Away from Her”) doesn’t show us the sexual violence. We only see glimpses of the aftermath of the crimes through the eyes of the women who recount their experiences. The question of rape is never in doubt; however, the oppression of the place makes it hard for the women to articulate the scale of the wrongdoing.

They face life-altering choices for themselves and their children. Do they say nothing? Do they stay and fight against evil? Or do they leave this place where the memories are so painful and the future likely unforgiving?

These uncomfortable questions hang about as they engage in rich dialogue. And the tension generated by the inevitable return of the men gives everything an imminent sense of earnestness. A decision must be made in a very short period of time.

The prospect of leaving and starting a new life elsewhere is too much for one family at the initial meeting. The eldest, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), encourages the group to say nothing and remain in the tight-knit community. After all, they must trust in their faith in the creator--this is but one existence, and the afterlife is eternal.

McDormand, the Oscar-winning actress, optioned Toews’ novel after reading it. She was unsure how it could be adapted, but she sensed it was a story that must be told. When the project was taken to very selective Polley, it appeared possible that a narrative could be constructed to bring it to the screen convincingly.

Turning to her longtime collaborator, cinematographer Luc Montpellier, Polley attempted to retain the novel’s intimate focus while bringing to the project the visual language of cinema. The tricky balance involved camera work that is both small and expansive.

The remarkable thing about “Women Talking” is that Polley achieves an epic feel to the film. While much of the action occurs in a barn loft, Polley constructs an entire village outside the barn’s walls. There is more to this community than the loft. And whether or not sets were built, the movie makes you believe that the place is just outside.

But the engaging images are only part of the success here. The terrific performances by the ensemble cast and the frank importance of the discussions are the priority. Many viewers may be familiar with the backstory, but Polley’s film weaves in considerable mystery. The details of the crimes are revealed in small flashbacks that inform of the horror the women have experienced. And at the core of the problem is the tyranny of the religious community in which women are second class.

The aspect of writing their conversations down was intriguing to me. The slight, unassuming Winshaw, who plays August, is perfectly cast. In the relative safety of the loft, the women feel empowered enough to speak openly about their experiences. And given August’s timid nature, he stays amongst them without disrupting their valuable debate.

It would be trite to call “Women Talking” a talky movie. Sure, the action centers on a rolling conversation over a couple of days, but it doesn’t come off like some kind of lecture or even as if it were a filmed stage performance. Sarah Polley delivers an artful cinematic experience, highlighted by excellent acting choices and topical, vital questions in play.

Watching the process of reasoning and essential humanity reckon with evil inhumanity makes “Women Talking” a fascinating and riveting film. It’s worthy of the theatrical treatment, where smartphones are silenced, and the content of the discourse dominates.