Movie Review: ‘Women Talking’

Plot: Based on the 2018 novel of the same name, Women Talking examines the lives of the women of an isolated Mennonite colony. When they discover that the men of the colony have been using cow tranquilizer to subdue and rape them, the women must decide to either stay and fight or leave the colony permanently.

Review: Women Talking is one of those rare films where I feel almost unqualified to critique. It has nothing to do with the performances, the direction, the costumes, or any other “cinematic” element. Rather it is the subject matter that is the sticking point for me. Though I consider myself an empathetic person (on my good days anyway) true empathy in this situation is impossible. I will never know what it is like to be a woman or what it is like to be raped. There’s also the added wrinkle here of an isolated Mennonite community where the women have virtually no agency, no autonomy, and are illiterate. This is all just a preamble to say that the situation is so foreign to me that it’s not in another zip code but on another continent.

Women Talking on the whole is a profound and powerful film about a variety of difficult subjects: body autonomy, religion, abortion, and forgiveness in the face of evil. Yet the film explores and examines these topics with zeal and delicacy, however, smartly offers no easy answers. Credit that to the deft and dutiful direction of Sarah Polley.

Once the indie darling of films like Go and The Weight of Water, Polley hasn’t acted in a feature film in over a decade, choosing instead to step behind the camera. I think she made the right choice as Women Talking delivers. Polley utilizes a faded almost sepia toned color palette. This reflects how the joy of life has been washed out due to the rapes. However, whereas Polley (who also adapted the screenplay and is up for an Oscar) could have made this a singularly dour affair, she instead adds moments of surprisingly levity, such as when August (Ben Whishaw) continues to take the minutes of the meeting during a ridiculous moment. The fact that Polley didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her direction is preposterous.

Polley’s screenplay never fails to draw you in to these women’s plight. Many feel that by leaving or outright not forgiving the men, they will be damned to eternal hellfire. It highlights how religion can be weaponized to restrict and limit rather than liberate and comfort. Indeed, it is these restrictions that make for the most interesting moments. Claire Foy’s Salome for example, believes she will become a murderer if she stays because she will no longer allow men to hurt her or her children. Rooney Mara’s Ona even questions if forced forgiveness is even forgiveness at all. Yet Ona, who advocates for leaving as well, also seeks the Bible for solace believing that ultimately forgiveness is better than revenge. And yet she’s not naïve about this situation believing that she will need time and distance before she can even begin to think about forgiveness. Each of these women struggles with processing this trauma in their own way. Each evolves or doesn’t evolve as the film progresses but there’s never any judgement either way.

Jessie Buckley gives the best performance (Oscar worthy in my opinion) of the film as the bitter and often dismissive Mariche. Two scenes in particular stood out, specifically a confrontation between her and Ona, and later when she returns to the meeting after seeing her abusive husband Klaas. Mariche demonstrates the most growth of any character. She even ultimately gives the three reasons the women should leave and create their own colony: faith, the safety of their children, and to have freedom of thought. It is this last that strikes me the most as almost all of these women (particularly Ona) are intelligent and wise. That they’ve been deprived literacy is infuriating. The fact that the women are making this choice not just for themselves but to provide a better future for their daughters is particularly honorable.

While Women Talking naturally consists almost entirely of women I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lone male in this movie, Ben Whishaw’s character of August. The son of an ex-communicated family, he understand the plight of these women even if he can never fully empathize. He’s a teacher and as the film progresses, you realize August may be the only one capable of breaking this horrific male cycle. He has the ability and the fortitude to teach young boys another way. You almost get the impression that of all the men, August is the only one who understands how profoundly wrong and vile the other men’s actions were. This is only strengthened by his barely veiled love for Ona and ultimately makes a personal sacrifice late in the film that much more devastating.

My only criticisms are two.  Too often Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier frame and shoot Women Talking like it is a play rather than a feature film. It takes away from the cinematic experience and ironically made me want to see a stage production of this movie. Secondly Polley includes a transgender man in the film named Melvin (previously Nettie) who since having been raped, refuses to talk to anyone except the children. My beef is not that a trans character was included (August Winter is superb) but rather that a transman would exist in this society. It feels out of place based on the scenario involved. To be fair I could be speaking out of complete ignorance and transgenderism could be part of the Mennonite community. (Feel free to hit me up in the comments below.) The inclusion just felt atonal based on the rest of the story.

Nevertheless, Women Talking demands your time and attention. It’s a powerhouse film filled with divine performances. An excellent directorial effort from Sarah Polley who demonstrates she possesses a superb eye and true talent. Please do the right thing Hollywood and don’t make me have to wait another ten years to see a Sarah Polley production.

My rating system:

God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad

2 Straight Garbage

3 Bad

4 Sub Par

5 Average

6 Ok

7 Good

8 Very Good

9 Great

10 A Must See

Women Talking: 8/10