Monday February 20, 2023
Movie Review: Women Talking (2022)
It’s aptly named anyway.
Women in a Mennonite community realize that the men in the community have been drugging them, raping them, then dismissing their charges and bruises as hysteria. The subsequent pregnancies—definitive evidence—seem to engender a shrug. But this time they caught a man in the act, he gave up the others, and they’ve all been taken to prison in the city. The women are given two days by themselves to decide what to do.
These are the options:
- Stay and do nothing
- Stay and fight
A plebescite is held—nicely filmed by writer-director Sarah Polley—but there’s a tie between “Stay and fight” and “Leave.” So they rehold the plebescite with just those two options.
Kidding. That was just one of those early moments where I was like, “Wouldn’t it make sense if…? No? Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.” If they’d had ranked voting to begin with, the movie wouldn’t exist. Or it would’ve been short.
Instead, 11 of the women meet in a hayloft to wrangle it out. They have not been taught to read or write, so the minutes are taken by August (Ben Whishaw), the educated, sensitive son of an excommunicated member who has returned to teach the boys. Positions are staked early.
- Salome (Claire Foy) is angry and wants to stay and fight
- Ona (Rooney Mara) is calm and wants to stay and fight
- Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is angry and wants to forgive the men—which isn’t really an answer, but she’s really adamant about it; it's also odd because she keeps insulting August; she seems to forgive the innocent man nothing
Though we might be in a 19th century township, bit by bit—with references to antibiotics, with women wearing Birkenstocks, with a census taker playing “Daydream Believer” from the loudspeaker of his car—we realize we’re in a contemporary setting. Which is when I began to realize what was missing from their conversation: How. How do you stay and fight? What does that mean? With pitchforks? With laws? And how do you leave? Do you have cash? Credit? You can't read or write: Do you have any idea what’s out there?
But how doesn’t really come into it.
Some part of me assumed they would stay and fight. I don’t know if I got that idea from the trailer or if it’s because that’s generally the point of drama—to confront the thing—but it’s not the point of this drama. Here, it’s wrangling through the trauma. It’s consciousness-raising. It’s healing.
We get revelations. August is in love with Ona, and she exchanges glances with him, and you kind of wonder why they don’t just get together. Or why it’s assumed August won’t go with the women. At least he’s been out in the world; he might be able to help. But nothing. He’s to stay behind and teach the boys to be better men. The morning they leave, he’s in the hayloft, crying, and he tells Ona’s mother, Agata (Judith Ivey), to tell Ona that he will always love her. “She loves you, too,” the mother says, and I thought, “Oh, that’s nice, that’s some comfort there,” before she adds, almost with a shrug, “She loves everybody.” Ouch. But it’s probably why he loves her.
We also learn that Mariche’s husband beats her, and she was urged to forgive him by her own mother, Greta (Sheila McCarthy), and maybe this is why Mariche both urges forgiveness and is incredibly angry and insulting. But they work through the issues, and everyone apologizes to Mariche, and Mariche agrees that leaving is a good idea—even as her husband returns early to get more bail money or something. Wait, so the other men send back the abusive drunk guy for this task? Not smart. Or are they all just abusive drunk guys?
How many of the women are products of rape, by the way? Does that come up? How long has this been going on? Decades? Centuries?
Throughout, we get a voiceover from Ona talking to her own child in whatever new place they’ve landed. But we never see the new place. We never see the struggle to land.
You know the whole “Men want to solve problems while women want to talk about problems” dynamic? This feels like that. It wasn’t for me.