“An act of female imagination” is the phrase Sarah Polley uses to describe her film, Women Talking. I don’t mean in interviews or press junkets, but in actual on-screen text. It’s a curious statement if you don’t know the context of the story. Between 2005 and 2009, in an ultraconservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia, dozens of women and girls were raped by their male counterparts, who drugged them using cow anesthetic to render them unconscious. When the victims awoke to find their bodies bruised and bleeding from their nether regions, their claims were dismissed by the perpetrators as them having sexual congress with Satan himself, or at best, hysterical hallucinations and “wild female imagination.” This movie, and the 2018 book by Miriam Toews loosely based on these events, seeks to turn that flimsy explanation into a weapon, positing on what can actually be accomplished when women alone reclaim their agency.
Set in 2010 somewhere in the U.S. (evidenced by a truck that drives by calling people out to be counted in the Census and that eerily blasts the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” of all things), the story essentially unfolds like a gender-swapped version of 12 Angry Men. One child even draws what could be interpreted as courtroom sketches as the debates unfold in the hayloft of a barn. In any case, just like its spiritual predecessor, the focus is on bringing disparate personalities and opinions together to determine the fate of those concerned. In that classic Henry Fonda film (and the Reginald Rose play), only one person’s life hangs in the balance, and he is all but completely unseen. In this one, the destiny of every woman in the colony rests upon the collective decision of a few.
After catching one of the attackers in the act, several of the women rebel and attempt to kill those responsible. The accused (the one who got caught named the others) are arrested and taken into custody, ostensibly for their own safety. After 48 hours, if no charges are filed, they’ll all be released. Despite not being able to read or write, the women hold a vote amongst their own, deciding upon three choices. One is to “Do Nothing” and forgive the men, advocated by “Scarface” Janz (Frances McDormand, also serving as an Executive Producer), because conveniently, their warped version of Christianity commands that they allow their own rape or be denied entrance into Heaven. The second is to wage a physical, violent war against those who harmed them and their protectors, dubbed “Stay and Fight.” The third option is to “Leave,” to simply pull up stakes and have every woman and girl leave the colony behind and set out on their own, forcing the men to fend for themselves.
The vote ends up tied between the latter two avenues, and so a moot is set up between representatives of two of the larger families (technically three, but Janz and her daughters leave as soon as forgiveness is taken off the table, all but reducing McDormand’s presence to a cameo) to come to an agreement, by which most if not all will abide. Taking the minutes is the one man that they feel they can trust, August (Ben Whishaw), formerly excommunicated from the colony for he and his mother asking questions of the faith, but allowed back in as a schoolteacher for the boys.
There are times when the discussions are exceedingly fascinating, and others where they’re extremely frustrating. The really good stuff comes from the fact that, in a stellar display of narrative discipline, each of Polley’s main players acts with complete consistency, even when they change their minds as the talks wear on. Ona (Rooney Mara) is soft-spoken but thoughtful, willing to hear anyone’s argument before she challenges or counters. She never asserts her opinion over any others, but constantly plays devil’s advocate to the most passionate statements from everyone else. Her evenhandedness is key, because she has become pregnant from her assault, and potentially has the most to gain or lose depending on how things shake out, as she’ll have to raise a child alone (she’s unmarried, though August carries a torch for her) in whatever world the women choose for themselves. Hell, the story is narrated by one of the children as a message to Ona’s unborn child.
Other characters have wildly varying personalities, but they all remain true to themselves as Polley establishes them. Salome (Claire Foy) is the most adamant about fighting the men, initially completely dismissive of anyone positing a situation that does not end in violence. Hotheaded Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is overtly antagonistic, especially to August, almost gleefully taking her pound of flesh from the only man in the room simply because he’s there, belittling and emasculating him because there’s nowhere else to direct her ire. Grandmothers Greta and Agata (Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey) find themselves in matriarchal moderator roles, mostly because they’re at peace with the fact that they won’t live much longer, guiding every remonstration back to the matter at hand when their adult offspring start acting more like children than the actual kids because the baton has to be passed to the next generation sooner rather than later. Mejal (Michelle McLeod) has panic attacks and seizures as a result of her rape, and relies on the “sin” of smoking to calm her nerves.
You can rely on each of these characters to be the same person at the end of the film as they are at the beginning, and that’s not always a given. Oftentimes you’ll see behavioral swings that betray the very nature that the script sets up, and completely without motivation. Sometimes characters with wholly different goals will say or do something completely contrary to what we know about them simply to move the plot forward. Polley makes sure that never happens with this ensemble, and it’s fantastic, because it allows the actors to give their all knowing exactly who they are. Buckley and Foy are particularly strong, and this might honestly be the best performance Judith Ivey has ever given. I was floored at these displays.
Still, there were moments that had me trying to pull my hair out on occasion. There are two points for me that come up noticeably short. One is the inclusion of a superfluous character for a dose of transgender virtue signaling. One of the victims, born Nettie (August Winter), has shed her femininity in the wake of her attack, cutting her hair and dressing as a boy called Melvin, and has decided to go mute. Melvin is very close to the children of the colony, spending much of their time playing with them in the fields, and tending to them if they get hurt.
Now, let me be absolutely clear here. I have no problem with trans characters or representation. I am an ally and will always be one. What I care about here is relevance to the story. Just like Lightyear couldn’t have existed as a publicly available film in 1995 despite its opening text due to its diversity, so too does Nettie/Melvin not make sense here. We’re talking about a Mennonite community so averse to the outside world that the presence of a truck, the announcement of the year, and a couple of modern medical references like antibiotics are the only indicators that it’s 2010 instead of 1810. We’re talking about a colony where they are commanded by their version of God to forgive rapists lest they be condemned to Hell instead of said rapists, one where it takes half the movie for even one of the main group – Salome – to even suggest a new faith if these are the rules they’re supposed to abide by (the fact that abandoning the church is never brought up outside this moment is its own brand of consternation, but I’ll concede that it makes sense within context), and you expect me to believe that they’d take a progressive attitude towards trans rights? Really? Sorry, I don’t buy it, especially when the character’s muteness is used as a delay tactic to raise dramatic tension in some scenes because they simply refuse to talk until they’re acknowledged the way they wish to be. In a different setting, this could work. Here it just feels shoehorned, and it interrupts otherwise well-paced sequences.
The second issue is spelled out by the title itself. This is very much a movie about women talking, but not really one about women doing. I’m all for dialogue-driven drama, but the physical action of the film is largely stilted. There’s very little movement during the debates relative to the passion and urgency of their discussions. Most often the cast just sits in the hayloft bantering back and forth. There are precious few moments of memorable stage direction, to the point that the proceedings at times feel more like a play than the actual stage play that seemingly informs the plot structure.
Contrast this with 12 Angry Men in this one context. Throughout the 1957 film, despite the claustrophobic environment of the jury room, it’s always an active set. The men get up, walk around, rifle through papers, dissect evidence, and demonstrate theories of the murder they’re brought together to adjudicate. At one point a physical fight nearly breaks out. The dynamic between Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb is always teetering on the edge of a knife thanks to the biases of the jurors and the stifling heat that drives up their tempers. Even simple acts like raising one’s hand or passing notes to vote require detailed blocking and coordination, and the constant movement makes you feel like you’re in the room with them.
Here, however, those moments are decidedly slight. The few instances that jump out to me are more for continuity purposes, like when August begins writing pros and cons of each option on some paper mounted on the wall, and a few shots later there’s way more text on those posters than he could have possibly jotted down. Even a dark prank or Mejal having an episode feel more like checkpoints in the plot rather than actual directorial touches. They just… sit, or stand, or lean, and they talk. That’s it. There’s a climactic moment where time is of the essence, and instead of doing anything proactive, all the women just join hands and sing “Nearer My God to Thee.” Your rapist husbands and fathers are on their way home to continue raping, and you’ve got time for a hymn? Get off your asses and do something! It’s ironic that “Do Nothing” is the one option that is instantly eliminated, because for large chunks of this movie, that seems to be the course of action, or lack thereof, when it comes to the staging of the film itself. As such, it feels like we’re watching the angry women whereas it felt like we were participating with the angry men.
On the whole though, this was a very intriguing project. Some are saying that Sarah Polley should be nominated for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. I agree with the latter, but not the former, for the reasons stated above. This is a really well-written, thoughtful exploration of what can happen when women are trusted to decide the course of their own lives, and it should serve as an example for the real world when it comes to the idea of bodily autonomy and self-actualization. Because of the strength of the screenplay, the actors are given proper space to shine in their own ways, each of them giving believable, relatable performances even when their characters’ viewpoints are almost diametrically opposed. But there are a few places where the pacing stumbles due to unnecessary preaching, and there are far too many moments where everyone just sits around the loft chatting without physically acting, which brings things precariously close to boring in spots. If you can get past that, this may prove one of the year’s best for you. If not, you may find yourself more in line with Frances McDormand and checking out after 10 minutes.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you ever been to a Mennonite community? Which of the options would you have chosen in their shoes? Let me know!