Film Review – Women Talking
***Trigger Warning – this film deals with domestic abuse, rape, pedophilia, and incest. Please take care if you want to watch this film or read any reviews.***
Sarah Polley (who will forever be Ramona to my generation) has resurfaced as the director of Women Talking (2022). The script by Polley and Miriam Toews is based on Toews’ book of the same name, which is also based on a true story.
The story revolves around a Mennonite colony in a time of turmoil. The only indicator of its time period is a truck trying to count persons for the 2010 census. Other than that instance, the period would be difficult to determine because of the Mennonites’ way of life. Like the title suggests, the film does center on women of the community talking in a barn, although the circumstances surrounding their gathering are more serious.
The colony’s women are subservient to its men and its religion. Because of these rules, the women are taken advantage of in the safest place possible, their own bedrooms. They are drugged and raped by their own colony’s men and boys. Their religion demands that they forgive these evil-doers, some of whom have not been identified and are not going to see any punishment. As the story progresses, we learn that the elder women and the children are not immune from these sinners. The lack of accountability brought forth by their religion’s leaders elicits actions from the women. They are asked to forgive and move on with their lives despite the constant threat.
The film is periodically narrated by a young woman related to Ona (Rooney Mara). It gives the viewer hope for an outcome and the delivery of Ona’s child, conceived with violent intentions. She gives the background on what happened and the historic “vote” taken among the women. They all had the chance to vote whether they do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Because the majority of the women could not read, the choices were pictures, and votes were Xs on the same paper. Because the votes were a tie between stay and fight and leave, a sort of committee meets to decide for the colony, all without the men’s knowledge, except for one, the school teacher, August (Ben Whishaw), who is tasked with taking the minutes.
There is no lead actress or main character as they all played as much importance to the story as the next. It’s been a while since seeing such a film. It gives the characters a chance and the space to say what they are feeling, whether it is anger, resentment, acceptance, or forgiveness. They each had an encounter with violence, and not all came out the same at its end. What I appreciated from this film is the progression of this serious discussion, learning about each woman’s experience, and the women speaking their minds, something frowned upon in this closed culture.
The trauma experienced by each woman is shown in brief flashbacks, sometimes the same scene multiple times. The scenes are all in muted tones, somewhat of a greyscale. The responses are in vivid color, especially Salome’s (Claire Foy) revenge, clawing and screaming as she is pulled away from one man we do not see on camera. The discussion in the barn is somewhat grey due to the setting. However, the children playing in the field outside are in brilliant color with warm sunlight basking across their faces as they play in the green field, unknowing of what is going on or the violence that lives in their colony, except for one child, Miep (Emily Mitchell), Salome’s daughter.
Something special does occur in this somewhat depressing film. Ona is pregnant as a result of her rape; August is interminably in love with Ona in a sweet way. We learn that August’s family was asked to leave the colony years ago because of his mother’s radical thinking. August returned with an education and continued to love Ona. It is one of the sweetest and most endearing relationships, one that forgives supposed sins and embraces love. While they are not in a relationship, August tries to love Ona from afar, and the love between them is known to all. Ona is one of the most Christ-like characters in the film. August is willing to marry and raise Ona’s baby, but Ona believes he deserves better and that he must educate the boys of the community as it could stop this rampant abuse.
If there was ever a film that prioritized showcasing the caliber of actresses (young and older), it is Women Talking. The actresses fed off each other, whether to quiet anger or ponder what God would think of their endeavors. While the premise of women talking in a barn (that’s an extreme generalization) may not appeal to everyone, it is a serious(ly) fantastic film that translates power from the supposedly meek and obedient women of this community to a greater good, defending their lives, those of their neighbors, their children, and their future.