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At the heart of Sarah Polley’s new film, Women Talking, there is a compelling contradiction. The film takes place over two days, at a point when the women of a Mennonite community have been instructed to forgive the men who have been repeatedly assaulting them in their sleep. Instead, the women gather in secret to decide what they will do: leave, do nothing, or stay and fight. The contradiction: the film persuasively articulates the systematic oppression that silences victims and punishes those who speak out, but seems poised to become an untouchable object itself, a film whose own sincerity and importance deflects criticism. Watching it is also an exercise in contradiction; while I am parsing the film’s many flaws, I am also, for almost the entire runtime, in chills.
Perhaps aware of the impact of stories of sexual violence, Polley is careful to not linger on the women’s physical suffering. We never see the attacks take place, only the aftermath: women waking up with bruised thighs and blood on the sheets, made pregnant despite their celibacy, or contracting diseases they must treat in secret. Polley takes care to extend compassion to the community’s men, to see all sides. But the film is so suffused with carefulness that it feels like an object designed to be admired and not a prompt to grapple with the messiness of its subject.
True to its title, the film is chock-full of conversations – moral, practical, theological – that feel, more often than not, formulaic and dry. The characters are not simply mouthpieces for different sides of an argument, but neither are they fully realised. They are Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jesse Buckley), voicing righteous, satisfying anger; Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey), interjecting with wisdom and pragmatism; two young girls whose presence reminds us of what’s at stake; and Ona (Rooney Mara), the philosopher, who turns their arguments over and over in her soliloquies, until they are smoothed into benevolent sentiment. If there were a main character, it would be Ona; but her equanimity is frustrating, and her monologuing perhaps the most jarringly monologue-like of the cast.
The performances are hindered by an approach to storytelling that is literal to the point of obnoxious. (A prime example: over a character’s rhapsodic plea that the community’s young teenage boys be allowed to go with the women should they leave, we see dreamy shots of boys playing in the fields and chatting warmly.) The film feels suspended in an unreal world, an effect only heightened by the inexplicable blue tint of the cinematography and the tedious shots of empty church pews and silent kitchens. And though the film is based on a real story – for her 2018 novel of the same name, Miriam Toews was inspired by a Mennonite community in Bolivia where over a hundred women reported being assaulted by men in the community – it cannot transcend the inherent artificiality of allegory. It feels as isolated from its real-world analogue – the #MeToo movement and the revelations of sexual misconduct in the film industry – as the colony is from the outside world.
But Polley’s investment in the material is genuine. As a child actor, she was exposed early to the industry’s disregard for women and children’s safety, and to the way men in power are protected. As a director, she has chosen projects about the repercussions of repressing abuse (Alias Grace, 2017) and the stifling nature of domesticity (Take This Waltz, 2011). It is difficult to dismiss Women Talking as schematic when Polley herself has grappled with its core questions. In her book of essays released last year, Run Towards the Danger, Polley describes her decision to not speak publicly about her experience with Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian radio host who was accused by three women (and acquitted in 2016) of sexual assault. She wondered if she would be believed, if she would be strong enough to withstand the response.
Women Talking is above all a fantasy: look what we could accomplish if we allowed for collective thought and action; if we could gather and talk openly. In her memoir, Polley describes drawing comfort from the image of an army of women behind her, and Women Talking gets to enact this solidarity in a rousing final scene as all the women move towards their fate together. But we’re left with the impression that the film is less interested in inspiring collective action than in aspiring to critical consensus.
► Women Talking is in UK cinemas now.