Director: Sarah Polley
Writers: Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews
Stars: Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley
Synopsis: Do nothing. Stay and fight. Or leave. In 2010, the women of an isolated religious community grapple with reconciling a brutal reality with their faith.
In 2009, women in a Mennonite community in Bolivia realized that they had been victims of sexual assault. These assaults happened while they were asleep and drugged by men in the community. The women were lied to, and told that the evidence of the assaults were punishments by God. Finally, the men were arrested. This story is the basis of Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley.
Thankfully, the film spares the audience from having to see the brutal attack take place on these women and children. What the film (based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews) focuses on is the aftermath, the women deciding what to do. Do they stay and forgive, as their religion tells them to, or do they leave. This might seem like a simple question, but the film shows us how complicated both of these options are.
The entire film Women Talking is made up of these women debating, discussing, and planning. The dialogue is well-written, as well as faithful to the book. The questions they are faced with show what a difficult situation these women are now facing. Should they forgive the men? What if not all of the men are guilty? What will happen to the boys left behind? Where will they go? The film unfortunately never gives a specific year for the film’s setting, which could have made more of an impact. Looking at these women in their pioneer style dresses, it is difficult to remember that these events occurred within the past 20 years. The only indicator that this happened within the past 100 years is a truck that comes though the village in the middle of the film, that plays the song “Daydream Believer.” Yes, not giving a specific time period does add to the timelessness of the tragedy, but I think it’s important for all of us to realize things like this are still going on in these isolated communities all over the world. Givinga time and place would also allow audiences to realize just how far behind these women are with the rest of the world.
This film completely depends on the performances of the actresses. The standout in the film is Claire Foy, who plays Salome. Salome stands out because she is the most relatable character. We feel her rage against her attackers. She seems like the most modern of the women, because she won’t simply follow the religious beliefs she has grown up with. Mara Rooney plays Ona, the young woman now pregnant with the child of one of the attackers. Ben Whishaw plays August, a man and outsider in the community, who keeps the notes from the discussions the women have. He is clearly in love with Ona, who wants to remain independent. Sadly, because of the screenplay, these women have very little to actually do. With very few exceptions, these women don’t seem like real, actual human beings. They seem like sound pieces. Salome comes across as “the angry one” while Ona comes across as “The Saintly One.” Frances McDormand (who plays Scarface Janz) is barely in the film. While the novel focuses on solely the discussions of the women, the film could have provided more content to fully understand the lives of these women, as is the advantage of the cinema form. It’s sad that these wonderful actresses are hamstrung by the limitations of the written word.
However, the visuals of the film are quite lovely. The interludes of music, written by Hildur Guðnadóttir, in which we see the children in the community playing, and doing their chores, is haunting. The colors of the costumes add a much needed brightness to the film. Polley also doesn’t show the faces of the men in the village, which is an effective way to separate them from the women in the film. The audience does indeed feel the isolation that these women live in, which drives home the difficulty of their choice, should they leave.
Although the premise of the film does have tremendous potential, in the end, Women Talking does little to deliver on that opportunity. The talented cast is wasted on a very preachy screenplay, which quickly becomes tiresome to listen to at length. The characters aren’t developed in a way that makes them particularly distinguishable or memorable. Sidney Lumet made 12 Angry Men a riveting drama, despite all of the action taking place in a single room. It is possible, with the right filmmaker, that this film could have been more interesting than it was. Instead, it was sadly disappointing.