‘Women Talking’ about summarises it. You won’t find a more representative title this year. But while Women Talking is undoubtedly chatty and inevitably theatrical as a result, it’s also completely gripping.
Set at an isolated Mennonite commune, it feels timeless. You could have told us that it was set in any decade, all the way back to the Birth of the Nation, and we’d have believed you. That’s part of the fabric of the film: the fact that its issues are just as relevant as they were in the nineteenth century shows how little we have progressed.
Women Talking wastes no time in arriving at its focus. The men of the colony, with the exception of one, have gone to town to bail out some of their number who have been accused of rape. Those rapists have been breaking into the women’s houses at night for some time, but – finally – the culprits were caught and evidence gathered.
It should be the end of a horrific culture that seems to have developed in the commune over a series of decades. But the men, who also have the commune’s elders among their number, have demanded that the women forgive the culprits when they return on bail. It’s a demand that’s outraged the women to varying degrees, and while the men are away, they come together to vote.
The vote is a three-way choice: to determine whether the women stay and forgive; stay and fight; or leave. That vote ends up being an even tie between stay-and-fight and leave, and so begins the movie in earnest. Leaders of the major families come together in a barn to discuss the pros and cons of each, before making a definitive choice. There’s a time-limit too, as the men will return soon.
The camera barely moves from the barn. The surrounding rolling fields are viewed from the building, as if we’re locked in there, even when the meetings are in recess. Women Talking becomes a chamber piece, a 12 Angry Women, and it’s hugely compelling.
In the barn are a kaleidoscope of views and perspectives. Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) was on the losing side of the vote and soon edges out of the group, waiting for the men to return. Frances McDormand would have been gunning for yet another Oscar nomination if she stuck around, so perhaps it’s for the best for the prospects of the other actors that she left early.
Salome (Claire Foy) is the incensed advocate of staying to fight. The time has come for retribution and the men shouldn’t get away with it. Ajal (Michelle McLeod), prone to panic attacks, wants a new life away from the commune. Ona (Rooney Mara) is more pragmatic, determined that her child – a product of rape – does not end up in the hands of the rapists. She is the closest to the audience, bouncing from conclusion to conclusion as we do. But she’s far more than a cypher, as she’s also got a poetic, elegiac view on life.
There’s something utterly believable about the way the arguments flow, sputter, stop and occasionally explode. No one can stay on topic, and the conversations meander. Whoever has been in a Zoom meeting over the past few years will know what that experience feels like. But while that sounds frustrating and digressionary, it’s always fascinating. Emotions and personal motivations get in the way of a result, and they each reflect on the characters that we are getting to know.
It’s not always believable. Writer and director Sarah Polley, who does outstanding work across the board here, does still produce a script that has a tendency to indulge in speechifying that verges on the well-rehearsed and theatrical. The women occasionally stop being lived-in characters, and instead become prophets and storytellers in a way that doesn’t quite fit the world. But those moments soon come back to earth, as we return to the natural crucible of the decision and its time limit.
Performances are uniformly stunning, with a cast of Oscar nominees all on top form. Our personal MVPs were Jessie Buckley as Mariche, one of the most abused of the women, but holding on to something that initially feels like culpability for the attacks; and Sheila McCarthy as Greta, using her false teeth as a gavel and shakily keeping her cool. But lavishing praise on one actor seems wrong as the ensemble is so strong.
By the time the decision is made, we were willing them on. It’s a situation that is all too believable, as the efforts to minimise sexual assault and the consequences of it are all very much present today. It leaves Women Talking feeling like a quietly important movie.
Women Talking is undoubtedly theatrical, exploring and talking around some weighty themes, and that might seem like a warning or criticism. But it turns them into virtues, as the theatricality is claustrophobic and the themes are explored with grace. If there was any justice, Women Talking would reach a large audience, but as the film notes, justice isn’t always served.