Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Women Talking (2022)

Still playing catch-up with this year's Best Picture nominees, so here's another Oscar Film Journal entry for ya!

This time it's the true-story-inspired Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley (now an Oscar winner for Best Adapted Screenplay), and starring a host of accomplished actresses including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, and in what is essentially a cameo, Frances McDormand.  The film is based on a novel by Miriam Toews, which was inspired by a real-life incident that took place in Bolivia.  It seems there was a colony of Mennonites wherein a hundred-or-so women and girls were drugged and raped by several of their male co-habitants, and when the perpetrators were finally caught, a handful of the victims met to decide what their next course of action should be.  The novel (and film) are a fictionalized version of those meetings.
The film drops us right in the middle of these appalling events, via voiceover narration, explaining that while the colony's men were away posting bail for the criminals, the women took a vote on whether to forgive the rapists (The men in charge gaslit the women into thinking they wouldn't get into Heaven if they didn't), stay and fight for systemic change in the community, or leave.  The vote overwhelmingly came down to the latter two options, and that's where the film really begins, with the debate over fighting or leaving.  The film plays out much like a....well, play.  Almost the entire story takes place in a hayloft, reminiscent of 12 Angry Men, where opinions and motivations are presented, debated, changed, etc.  Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy play two of the village elders who more or less keep order; Salome (Claire Foy) leads the charge on staying and fighting, fed up with having to endure the abuse and driven by anger over the harm done to her children; Mariche (Jessie Buckley) character, married to an abusive drunk, is too frightened to take any action and just wants to stay and forget the whole thing; and the idealistic Ona (Rooney Mara), a spinster who was impregnated by one of the attackers, initially wants to stay and fight but later changes her mind.  Keeping minutes of the meetings and attempting to help make sense of it all is August (Ben Whishaw), a failed farmer who is the colony's one trustworthy adult male (The novel is told from his point of view but the screenplay wisely makes him more of a side character). 

The plot is essentially a vehicle for the personal dynamics to play out.  The two most relatable characters are the revenge-minded Salome and the optimistic Ona, while the institutionalized Mariche comes off as a bit of an obligatory antagonist for much of the running time (We do however start to feel for her as more information about her husband is doled out).  Considering the entire film takes place basically in one room, Polley manages to keep the ongoing debate engaging, while gradually revealing the horrifying truth that this isn't a period piece from the Puritanical 1600s or even the barely-enlightened early 1900s, but that these events took place at the same time as the 2010 census.  That such a community could exist in the 21st century, ruled by superstition and dominated by patriarchal values to the point that only the male children are taught how to read and write, is truly distressing.  

Women Talking is a fairly enthralling, dialogue-driven commentary on how far we've come toward gender equality, and more importantly how far we still have to go.  Boosted by genuine performances and a palpable sense of admiration for the source material, it's a film that rewards patience and attention to detail.

I give the film *** out of ****.

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