Women Talking (2022)
The hard-hitting Oscar-worthy drama Women Talking could have been titled Twelve Angry Women, but with the necessary subtitle: But They’re Very Justified in Their Rage. It is, as the title suggests, a movie almost entirely about women talking in one central location, enough so to feel like a stage play captured for the screen. However, the reason these women are assembled is heartbreaking, infuriating, and eminently engrossing. Women Talking demands to be heard.
The dozen women have gathered to debate the future of their participation in their community, a closed-off Mennonite coalition. They are victims of heinous sex crimes and general repression, debating between staying and fighting and abandoning their way of life. These women are talking about their own agency and what their collective response will be to the great wrongs that have prevailed upon them. It’s not just that the women of this community have been preyed upon by predators in their midst, their trauma has been dismissed as ghosts and devils until literal men were literally caught and apprehended. The next part is even more galling, as the guilty men will be returning back to the community and the women are expected to forgive the predators and go back to life as it has been. Except how exactly has life been for the women of this small community? The assaults have been going on for decades, enough that many of the children are the byproducts of their abusers. One grandmother is brought to tears that she should have done more to protect her adult daughter, herself married to an abusive man. The systematic nature of this abuse is the core of their deliberation. Can they stay and reform a broken society from inside, or is the best hope radically breaking away and starting anew without the men?
The movie also serves as a debate over the capacity for grace and forgiveness, reminding me in subject as well as the approach of last year’s equally hard-hitting and equally spellbinding indie, Mass. I found it especially insulting that these women are expected, by the male leaders, to simply forgive and forget, to shuffle back to subservience. It’s a larger philosophical discussion over the nature of grace and accountability. It would be showing grace to these men to forgive them when they do not deserve it, and surely the male leaders would underline this point in a comparison with their religious text, akin to Jesus forgiving those who crucified him. However, if forgiveness is not the catalyst for reform and reclamation, then it’s just another empty gesture that maintains the status quo of abuse going unpunished and the abusers being protected. It’s easy to make larger connections to larger societies protecting predators through conditioned silence. The entertainment industry has been rife with bad men, and yes it’s typically men, behaving criminally and being protected by their position, and it might be easy to make connections with Women Talking and She Said, the fact-based take-down of Harvey Weinstein. Are these people worthy of forgiveness or is the patriarchal system of power (women aren’t even allowed to learn to read and write in this community) beyond salvaging? Within minutes of watching, I was already shaking my head and saying they should burn it all to the ground.
Women Talking is powerful and somber without being overly grave to the detriment of the material. It’s never taken anything less than serious, but the subject matter is handled very sensitively and even rated PG-13. Under the careful guidance of writer/director Sarah Polley (Away From Her, Stories We Tell), the film doesn’t soft-pedal the abuse these women have suffered but it doesn’t wallow in it either, getting overloaded with sordid details. The screenplay unfolds key pieces of information over time, allowing the audience to piece together a fuller picture (I didn’t even realize the family connection of the dozen women until an hour in). It would be easy if the only response explored was one of unfathomable rage, best exemplified by a stirring monologue where Claire Foy (The Crown, First Man) rattles off what she will do to protect her young daughter including murder, including vying with the Almighty, and even including spending eternity in hell. It’s easy to be all teeth-gnashing vengeance and fury, and entirely deserved considering these women are already looked upon as second-class citizens. However, Polley aligns her movie as a debate between anguish and hope and the difference between false and real hope. Is it real to hope that these men will change? Is it real to hope that August (Ben Whishaw), a college-educated child of a former outcast, can break the cycle? By the end, the main feeling I had was catharsis, that these women can chart a new, better path.
Given the heavy subject matter and the ensemble nature of the production, you would be right to assume that this is an actors’ showcase. The three biggest roles belong to Foy’s Salome, Rooney Mara’s Ona, and Jessie Buckley’s Mariche, each presenting a different perspective. Salome wants to stay but mostly as a means of collecting vengeance for her and her daughter. Mariche wants to forgive the men because, if they do exile themselves, they are told their immortal souls will be denied the kingdom of heaven. It also happens that Mariche’s alcoholic husband is one of the accused men returning. Ona is pregnant with her attacker’s child and questioning which setting would be best for her, staying with what she knows or risking a new life, for better or worse. Foy and Buckely (The Lost Daughter, Men) each have a signature monologue opening up their character perspective and each of them cinches it (call it their “Oscar clip moments”). Mara (Nightmare Alley) has the more contemplative and subdued role, which makes it less showy. Her character is the one who questions the most the value of forgiveness, and of course whether it counts when forgiveness is forced with the threat of eternal damnation. If Salome is the movie’s fury, then Ona is a reflection of begrudging hope, and Mara succeeds with a noble sense of grace.
There are two minor quibbles I have with Women Talking that hold it slightly back for me, and it’s not the locked-in setting making the proceedings feel like a staged play. Polley uses visual inserts and cutaways to devastating effect to highlight the women’s trauma, from awakening to the aftermath of assault to miscarriages, notions to heighten the visual storytelling potential of the medium without digging into exploitation and losing the tasteful tone. The directing even takes a few cues from Sydeny Lumet’s work from 12 Angry Men. One critical aspect that holds back the movie, again only slightly, is that the characters tend to feel a little more like various points of view rather than finely developed characters. Given the nature of the debate, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s a smart storytelling move to coalesce. It just slightly limits some emotional engagement; it’s still there because of the skill of the actors and every drop of empathy they rightly earn, but the characters aren’t as well realized as they could have been. This can also be simply because we’re dealing with a dozen characters to try and supply enough material for. Even in 12 Angry Men, not every juror is going to be given equal importance (nobody cares about you, juror #7, so sit down). I reflect back to Mass, an excellent 2021 movie that you should seek out, and how personable and in-depth those characters came across over their feature-length sit-down. It also helps that it only had four characters to balance. The other minor criticism I have is the overemphasis the movie places on a long-in-the-works romance between Ona and August, who maybe has more screen time than maybe any woman. For a movie dealing with the sexual and emotional trauma of women and them taking account, I’m left uncertain about the amount of time we spend on an unrequited romance. It’s not like Polley is elbowing in wacky rom-com material, as it all likewise carries the same subdued tone. I just don’t know if this movie needs a romance elevated during its otherwise 100 plaintive minutes.
Women Talking is an urgent movie that every person should watch. The central dynamic is radiating with dramatic potential, and the actors are uniformly excellent, even the youngest actors handling some very touchy material. Polley’s direction is stately and subdued without removing any of the surging emotional power inherent in her drama. I’m overjoyed that Polley has returned back to filmmaking as she hasn’t made a movie in ten years. It’s a triumphant return for Polley, one that will likely have her vying on the biggest stages come awards season. Women Talking is timely and, unfortunately, also timeless. By the end, you’ll feel slightly exhausted but better for it, like the euphoria that comes after a good cry and you feel like, having pushed through, you’ll be better for it.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Posted on December 18, 2022, in 2022 Movies and tagged ben whishaw, claire foy, drama, frances mcdormand, jessie buckley, motherhood, oscars, religion, rooney mara, sarah polley, trans. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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