Women Talking (2022)
Written by Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews
Directed by Sarah Polley
Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Frances and Jessie Buckley
In cinemas February 16 (Australia)
By Ana Cavalcante
Women Talking starts with a gruesome reality and a simple premise. Women in a rural, fundamentalist Christian colony have been repeatedly drugged and raped by the men in the same community.
They are given metaphysical explanations for the violence for months until they finally catch an aggressor who gives up the others’ names to the police. While the community men go to the city to post bail for the offenders, the women cast a vote and later meet to decide what to do.
Based on the book of same name from Miriam Toews (who also wrote the screenplay with the director, Sarah Polley), and inspired by a true story, the movie imagines a daylong meeting where all the major concerns in women’s movements and feminist theory arise and are discussed. Far from lecturing the audience on the meaning of gaslighting and rape culture, what this movie does is demonstrate these concepts while making clear how the personal is truly political.
The women in the colony consider three scenarios: stay and forgive the men, stay and fight or leave the colony. As they are illiterate, they invite the colony’s male teacher, August to write the meeting’s minutes. For the uninitiated in political organizing, minutes are traditionally women’s work, because nearly invariably the men are busy talking. But here, as per the title, the women are talking. This movie would not pass a reverse Bechdel test, and that is refreshing.
Women historically have struggled to have a platform to speak, to have their history recorded and to be believed, particularly in cases of sexual assault. Voice, listening, speaking appear in ground-breaking feminist academic work (Gayatri C. Spivak, Chapadra T. Mohanty and Carol Gilligan among others), besides women’s campaigns such as #letherspeak. None of this movie’s themes would be out of place in 2023 urban Australia.
Another pleasant innovation in the movie is that the violence is not explicitly depicted, but only its aftermath. The women talk about all forms of male violence, and we see women’s bodies hurting, we watch women bruised, pregnant, struggling with self-doubt and trauma-related symptoms. Nevertheless, we never see the abusers, nor does the camera take their perspective. If the audience is to consider the men, it is through the women’s narratives.
The elders of the community threaten the women with a refusal to enter heaven if they do not forgive the men. Faith in God is extremely important to all of them. As they discuss this threat, other challenges appear.
The movie conversation touches all aspects of any feminist discussion on patriarchy and its impact on women. The women talk about being disenfranchised in the community, with no literacy or social standing. They talk about their responsibility to look after the children and the men, the diversity of opinions due to positionality (married, single, mothers), the fear of raising a new generation of abusers, and fearing going away and missing sons and siblings.
Even one of the most traditional discussions in the area of violence against women and domestic violence shelters appears: When do boys become a threat? Can women trust boys over 12 to not turn abusive when they were raised by abusive men in a society that endorses sexism?
Women Talking reflects on the social structures that lead boys and men to believe they are more important than women and can dispose of their bodies. The abuse is a learned from an early age, as one character puts it, ‘the breadcrumbs that lead to violence’.
These women are making extremely difficult choices to protect their lives and that of their daughters and through this they place the women’s collective above organized religion and the nuclear family.
We watch mothers and daughters connecting while young girls sit together braiding their hair. In a small moment, in the best of intergenerational feminist tradition, an elder woman addresses an adolescent as ‘sister’. The women in this movie talk and connect but above all they laugh, numerous times, expressing their joy in female company and the absurdity of their situation. This important part of women’s friendship, which is so sparse in other movies (Suffragette comes to mind) not only helps to reduce the tension, but also it reminds us of the pleasure in comradery.
The photography follows a chiaroscuro scheme, with almost no colour and strategic points of light. It reminds the viewer of the surrounding religious context, but also adds light and shade to accompany the mood.
It is a fine ensemble cast performance with the actors complementing each other at each step, including the awkward August (Ben Whishaw) who seems out-of-place at all times, not truly belonging anywhere. Through the acting and his backstory, it becomes clear why he is the man allowed among women at this pivotal moment.
An important note for fans of Francis McDormand though. She performs more of a cameo than significant acting in this movie. As one of the film’s three producers, she may be lending her star power on the poster to draw viewers to the cinemas, but unfortunately there is not much of her on screen.
Differently to the book, the movie is narrated by a young woman and not August, giving the women the first and the last word in this story, as it should be.
Women Talking is highly recommended.