WOMEN TALKING – Review
There is a lot of talk about WOMEN TALKING – awards talk. The title of this electrifying ensemble drama may suggest something tame but the fiery WOMEN TALKING is no polite, quiet chat but a deep, sarcastic, no-holds-barred, even funny, and thought-provoking discussion among a group of Mennonite women who are meeting secretly in a barn to talk about what to do after a series of brutal attacks on them.
Women in the colony have been waking up beaten, bloody and in pain, with no memory of what had happened. The men tell them they are being attacked by the devil, or maybe it is just “wild feminine imagination.” Until they catch an attacker – and discover it is men in their own colony who have been drugging and raping women in the night.
A brilliant ensemble cast is at the heart of this amazing drama, a cast that includes Frances McDormand, Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, and Judith Ivey, who fire-up director Sarah Polley’s screenplay. The screenplay is based on Miriam Toews’ novel, which in turn was based on real events that took place in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Toews herself grew up in a Mennonite community, in Canada, which she left in her late teens, which gives her a deeper understanding of this community, But what transpires in this film goes well beyond this conservative religious community, offering a universal message on women’s rights and place in human society.
This is a fascinating, intelligent and engrossing drama, with deeply thought-provoking discussion among women with more widely differing opinions than we expect. They engage in the kind of electrifying conversation any thinking person would relish listening in on. The women in this restrictive male-dominated community may not have been taught to read or write, but they certainly have sharp brains and sharper tongues, which means this drama is filled with crackling, intelligent dialog. Their hard, practical lives incline them to plain speaking, and their voices get free rein away from men’s ears. Their sometimes-heated discussion includes a range of views, of fears and worries, and of practical matters, but also ranges into the profound, the spiritual, and the philosophical as they contemplate the changes they want for their future.
Waiting until the men have gone to town to bail out the attackers, who have been arrested, the women seize the little time they have to speak plainly and bluntly about what they are going to do. Only one man is present, the school teacher August (Ben Whishaw), an outsider whose mother was expelled from the colony for asking too many questions. August’s only reason for being there is to take the minutes, since the women can’t read or write. The women decide to take a vote on three choices: Do nothing and forgive the men, stay and fight for justice, or leave the colony.
But when the vote results in a tie between staying and fighting or leaving, the women face a ticking clock. They must decide before the men return.
When the vote narrows the women’s choices to two: staying and fighting for their rights or leaving the colony, a group of women directly involved in the attacks are chosen to decide which of the two choices it will be. As it happens, two families are represented. One is led by elder Agata (Judith Ivey), with her daughters Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy), and Neitje (Liv McNeil), a niece of Salome. The other is led by elder Greta (Sheila McCarthy), with her daughters Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), and Mariche’s daughter Autje (Kate Hallett). Frances McDormand’s character Scarface Janz is the elder of another family, represented the losing option of doing nothing. She and her daughter Anna (Kira Guloien) and granddaughter Helena (Shayla Brown) are included in the early part of the discussion. As an older woman with a widowed daughter and blind granddaughter, Scarface Janz feels the other choices are too a big a risk for her.
While there is violence behind the story, this is not a violent film. The attacks have already taken place before the women gather to talk, but the events are recapped briefly in an opening sequence (meaning one does not want to miss the film’s first few minutes). The attacks are alluded to in periodic flashbacks, but it is handled deftly without showing the violence, just shots with some blood in the aftermath.
The discussion is also not non-stop, broken up by both the flashbacks and glimpses of the world around them, particularly the children playing in the fields outside the barn. Breaks are taken, and there are private conversations. A wonderful score by Hildur Guonadottir also lightens the mood or deepens it. Breaks are taken, and there are private conversations. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier uses desaturated color, which gives that world an old-fashioned, sepia tone look, but one of great beauty as well.The film uses desaturated color, which gives that world an old-fashioned, sepia tone look, but one of great beauty as well. At one point, the outside world intrudes, when a census taker appears, in a comic and rather surreal bit.
Although the women are the main characters, there is one man present in the barn, August (Ben Whishaw) as the boys’ teacher, who is there only to write down what is said, since the women cannot read or write. August is considered an outsider but he is the son of a woman whose was expelled from that colony for asking too many questions. August returned after college, hired to be the colony’s teacher for the boys, but he also returned in part due to his feelings for Ona (Rooney Mara). August’s presence adds some balance to the perspective, representing a gentler kind of man and offering insights when asked about the future of their sons.
The ensemble cast presents a variety of viewpoints, and represent differing ages and concerns that influence those views. The two young girls who caught the attacker are adamant that the men cannot be forgiven, but they are also bored with all the talk, and play and prank as the discussion progresses. Some fear change, others fear their own rage. These deep discussions, often profound, always engrossing, and sometimes emotionally raw, range well beyond just these attacks and the concerns of this conservative religious community. But the discussions are sometimes punctuated with humor, and even with little petty conflicts.
The acting is superb throughout, in the ensemble scenes and more individual ones. Clarie Foy’s Salome and Jessie Buckley’s Mariche often face off, in fiery exchanges where both actresses shine, while the older women are often the peacemakers. Actually, the older actresses, Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey, are really the acting standouts, stealing scenes as McCarthy’s bird-like Greta teaches with fables about her two horses, while Ivey’s steady Agata often diffuse conflict by song or reminding the women to take a higher point-of-view.
WOMEN TALKING was inspired by real events, attacks that took place in a Mennonite community in South America, but the film is more universal. This striking drama debuted at the Toronto film festival, and since then, it has garnered both critical acclaim and awards, particularly for its sharp dialog and electrifying ensemble cast, along with strong Oscar buzz.
Don’t be put off by the title or the idea of women talking in a barn. There is plenty of emotional fire, wit, and intelligent discussion on women and society’s treatment of them, global topics for all to consider.
WOMEN TALKING opens Friday, Jan. 20, in theaters.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars