Sarah Polley’s Women Talking has a bold message at its center: forgiveness – Awardsdaily
Women Talking by Sarah Polley had its world premiere last night at the Telluride Film Festival. It’s a film that, at least for me, needed time to settle. I was haunted, as I sometimes am, by the faces of the characters, especially Rooney Mara, whose performance is probably the best in this very well-acted set.
Twitter is buzzing with discussions of “Best Picture Favorite” right now. I think that’s premature, though given our recent run at conditional awards (no white males winning top prizes) it gives the film a slightly better chance. It’s not because it’s not good enough to compete with male directed movies it’s just that given the state of things it’s hard to know if they’re okay because they deserve to do well, or if they’re doing well because people want a fairer Oscar race.
The only reason I’m bringing this up is that in a typical year I’d watch Women Talking and think: It’s a great movie but probably too controversial to win Best Picture. But in the post-2020 Oscars, that’s not necessarily the case. In its own way, sad as it is throughout, Women Talking ends on an uplifting note, which helps it be a film that could win.
Either way, it looks like a strong contender for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay nominations at the very least. Possibly also Costumes, Cinematography and Original Music. As for the cast, it’s all supporting performances, with Rooney Mara as perhaps the lead. Supporting nods would go to CLaire Foy and Jessie Buckley, though it’s a very strong ensemble and most definitely a SAG nominee for the entire cast.
Women Talking is the reverse of the movie 12 Angry Men. It’s the same basic concept – women in a room talking, or in this case, a barn trying to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. The conflict in the book resonates a little more than in the film – that they are strictly religious Mennonite women and must betray all they know to save themselves and their offspring. It doesn’t show up as much in the movie, probably because the actors themselves are so modern in their way of speaking, their tone of voice, etc.
I probably found the best summary of the online book, as follows:
A fictionalized account of a true story, in which women from a strict Mennonite community in Bolivia were repeatedly sexually assaulted while drugged, by men from their own community. Women have introspective existential conversations: stay (and fight) or go? They also discuss the moral issues of faith and forgiveness. The only periodic male perspective is the transcriber who translates their conversations into English and offers occasional commentary. The context is a conservative patriarchal society where women have no rights. They want security for their children, the ability to practice their faith and think for themselves. Powerful writing.
Polley clearly has great respect for the book and its language. It is a rigorous and careful adaptation that retains much of the language while adding moving visual elements.
Here is a passage from the book that is on screen:
“But what about your question?” Greta asks. Should we consider asking the men to leave?
None of us have ever asked men for anything, says Agatha. Not a single thing, not even for the salt to pass, not even for a penny or a moment alone or to do the laundry or to open a curtain or to spare the little yearlings or to lay hands on the little ones on my back as I try, again, for the twelfth or thirteenth time, to push a baby out of my body.
Isn’t it interesting, she says, that the one and only request women make of men is to leave?
The women burst out laughing again.
They just can’t stop laughing, and if one of them stops for a moment, they’ll quickly start laughing again with a sonic burst, and they’ll all go away again.
Polley brings this whole scene to life so well. In a sense, the women in the film already seem free-spirited, save for one character played by Jessie Buckley, and the stern Mennonite matron who refuses to engage in rebellion (Frances McDormand, who holds a small role, almost a cameo).
That’s where I think the movie could have used some of their life before they decided to leave, which wasn’t just about the rape. In the movie Witness, for example, we know the Amish world very well even before Harrison Ford was brought there. Once he gets there, we see the stark contrast between us and them. In this movie, it didn’t really feel like such a completely different reality than in Witness.
Removing this element from the story makes it a little harder for the audience to root themselves in the characters, at least initially. It’s a film about ideas and the connections between women, and why they need to be in a group to discuss. It is a fundamental, primordial need. Masculinity of any kind has been purged from this film almost entirely. All the men present are either children or the only male character played by Ben Wishaw who is the most emotional of them all and deferential to women almost like servants.
This will certainly lead some to see the film as “Men = bad”. Very liberal men on the left will have no problem with this because they agree and often hate each other, like the infamous Freddie DeBoer Understack piece illustrated. Certainly, it could be seen as such, as a screed against straight males. But I think it’s deeper than that.
Women Talking wasn’t so much of an emotional experience, at least for me.
But as I thought about it more and replayed it in my head (rather than doing what I should have been doing, sleeping), it became a much more powerful emotional experience. What struck me was that this film can be used by either side of the culture wars. I can see my friends on the right celebrating his strong pro-life message. They are deeply religious women, which is actually the driving force behind the pro-life movement. This film shows it very clearly in the idea that even a child conceived during rape can be considered innocent and be even more loved. My friends on the left might attack the film for the same reason, calling it “propaganda for the pro-life movement.”
Conversely, there is a character who is probably a transgender man. It’s not said at the outset, but that’s the idea. We assume that strictly religious people can be homophobic or transphobic, but here there is understanding, compassion and ultimately acceptance. My friends on the right might see this as inauthentic and “woke” in terms of putting something where it doesn’t belong just to push this ideology on unsuspecting people. In contrast, my friends on the left were celebrating the film’s inclusion and focusing on LGBTQ issues.
Thinking about these two key points in the film led me to what I think is the most courageous, interesting and important point in the film: forgiveness. Part of this story leaves room for contemplation of how all the men who repeatedly raped these women could have been brought to this point. In a closed and highly religious community, their relentless need for sexual liberation might have driven them to such desperation that they would drug women and rape them in their sleep. It’s a brave notion, a hard idea to accept at any time, but especially in 2022. That certainly doesn’t make it a rape apology movie, any more than it’s a piece of propaganda for left or right. It’s just another thoughtful rumination on the human condition.
We already knew that Polley was a sensitive, observant, and brilliant writer and director of movies like Stories We Tell and Away From Her. As Julie Huntsinger of the Telluride Film Festival said during the presentation of the film, with Women Talking, Polley took a big step forward.
Women Talking is Polley’s best film and will likely be among the best films of 2022.