Miriam Toews’ book Women Talking is based on a very real Mennonite community that existed in Bolivia. There, the men routinely drugged and raped the community’s women – including their own family members – and blamed it on the work of the Devil. In reality, the women of this community, illiterate and without any real concept of the outside world, remained in the community for another four years, while the assaults continued. In the book and in Sarah Polley’s adaptation of the same name, which relocates the community to a generic middle-America farmstead, the women gather to debate on a life-altering decision – should they stay and fight the men doing this to them or leave forever? It is, as intoned at the beginning of Polley’s film, a work of ‘female imagination’, envisioning a space in which women can air their pain, trauma, fear and determination, and find a foothold to step toward a brighter future.
I have not read Toews’ book. I’ve heard it’s very good. All I can imagine is that Toews, a Mennonite at an earlier time in her life, would have filled her book with the things that the film adaptation unfortunately lacks, namely a sense of place, character and genuine narrative tension. Polley’s portentous, well-meaning-to-a-fault approach to the material is hopelessly didactic, ultimately coming across as tellingly patronising of its subjects. A formidable cast has assembled here, headlined by three bright young talents in Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley, as key members in the debate. Elsewhere, Frances McDormand briefly appears as a naysaying member of the community, while Ben Whishaw plays one of the few men in the cast, a downtrodden teacher enlisted as the minute-taker of the meetings. The script is packed with meaty, worthy monologues for its actors to dig into, certainly, and almost all the cast emote like their lives depend on it. Barely any of them achieve a sense of believability throughout.
Based on the book of the same name by Miriam Toews, filmmaker Sarah Polley dramatises the account of a group of Mennonite women debating whether to remain or flee from an abusive community. It’s a well-meaning work that unfortunately succumbs to limiting virtuousness, forgoing much of the film’s potential for tension or resonance.
The key problem lies in Polley’s direction and scripting. The world the women live in is only given the very barest of contours; a dreamy, Malickian montage of children running through long grass here, a drone shot of the sprawling farmlands there. The men of the community have left town to bail out the accused who have since been arrested, leaving the women free to discuss before they return. Therefore, outside of Whishaw’s August (who becomes something like the stand-in for men in general throughout the piece), no men are meaningfully present in the story. It’s an understandable choice, but Polley’s decision to keep the world outside the barn frustratingly abstract not only denies us an ability to identify with the world these women have come from, it also suggests a general disinterest in why the idea of being a part of this community has kept these women around for this long.
The actors try their best, but are given archetypes, cartoonish renderings, instead of fully-fleshed characters – the firebrand, the saintly reasoner, the bitter naysayer. Only McDormand’s character seems to possess something like an inner life that is anything more than academic, a crime for which she is swiftly relegated to the outskirts of the story within the first scene. This is to say nothing of a trans character, whose treatment may be Women Talking’s most patronising element, a trans man who is regularly deadnamed throughout the film and who exerts exactly zero influence on the proceedings (conveniently, he has taken a vow of silence). As for the talking of the cis, white women in the film, the dialogue they are saddled with seems at odds with the place we’re told they’ve come from – these women are illiterate, with little conception of the outside world, and yet they speak as though they’ve read every thinkpiece The New Yorker has to offer, and communicate with the clarity and purpose of people who have spent years in therapy. Every touchstone of post-Me Too era discourse is touched upon, from gaslighting to ‘Not All Men’. Women Talking isn’t necessarily under the obligation to accurately depict the lifestyle of a Mennonite community, but it’s approach to the rest of the story world – that is, to basically not include a genuine sense of place at all, aims to situate the story in an amorphous ‘it is happening everywhere’ sort of reality that feels at odds with the specific drama of this story.
This is all rendered in a garish, desaturated colour grade which robs the imagery of much of its spectral, rural beauty, instead opting for sludgy greys and browns ostensibly meant to evoke a lack of nostalgia in looking back at the meetings from a future point. It’s an aesthetic choice that, like much of Women Talking, is assuredly well-meant, but falls utterly flat. The film, like last year’s She Said, approaches a point of conversation that is new, and raw, in the pop culture psyche, but finds itself armed with the language of politics, of ideology, not art. Women Talking is relentlessly didactic, its considerations in line with what the filmmakers consider to be ideologically sound, but which result in a film that features a lot of talk building to a foregone conclusion, a mishmash of loose caricatures and shoddily-built scenes swirling around the story’s thematic righteousness, sacrificing ambiguity, tension and, honestly, interest, in the telling.
Women Talking in cinemas now.
Movie title: Women Talking (Polley, 2022)
Movie description: Based on the book of the same name by Miriam Toews, filmmaker Sarah Polley dramatises the account of a group of Mennonite women debating whether to remain or flee from an abusive community. It’s a well-meaning work that unfortunately succumbs to limiting virtuousness, forgoing much of the film’s potential for tension or resonance.
Date published: February 16, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Sarah Polley, Miriam Toews
Director(s): Sarah Polley
Actor(s): Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand