Friday, January 6, 2023

Talking About “Women Talking”

Let’s face it: a film called Women Talking sounds like a gabfest. It’s easy to imagine a screen full of bitchy wives, making catty comments over cocktails. It suggests an update of The Women, the 1939 George Cukor opus in which the ladies who lunch struggle to grab power as well as one another’s husbands.

 The title Women Talking turns out to be hugely accurate for the new film directed by Canadian auteur Sarah Polley  But this is hardly a frivolous exercise about soignée ladies vying for social power. Polley’s script adapts a 2018 novel which itself is based on what happened within an isolated Canadian Mennonite community that had settled in Bolivia. In Polley’s film, the location of the settlement is left obscure. But what’s crystal-clear is that these women, raised to live modest, conservative, devoutly religious lives, suddenly have no choice but to make a decision that may overthrow everything they believe.

 Watching the film, it’s easy at first to think that these women lived long ago. Their drab frocks and head coverings, along with their clean-scrubbed faces, suggest an era much earlier than our own. And the fact that they can neither read nor write strongly argues that this story unfolds, perhaps, back in the nineteenth century, when rural communities stuck to subsistence farming, and women, in particular, weren’t always granted opportunities for education. But a few passing references within the dialogue—to antibiotics, for instance—remind us that this tale unfolds in much more recent times. Amazingly, the actual story took place circa 2011.

 It's a story that’s sordid in the extreme. Though the adult males in this community are never seen, we learn that some among them are guilty of behavior that can only be called heinous. It has become their practice to drug the community’s girls and women with cattle anesthetic, then rape them in their beds. Inevitably, some of the women have become pregnant; most have suffered deep psychological distress. But though several of the culprits have been caught and jailed by local authorities, the community is in process of bailing them out, and requiring the defiled women—on religious grounds—to forgive.

 Under these dire circumstances, a small clutch of  women meet secretly in a hayloft to make a fateful decision: should they knuckle under to the rules set by their all-male elders? Should they stay put and fight the patriarchy? Or, gathering their small children, should they pack up and leave the only world that most of them have ever known?

 Polley, who was once a young actress known for challenging parts in films like The Sweet Hereafter, was talked into directing by Frances McDormand, who functioned as producer here while also playing a small but key role.  At age 43, and with three young children at home, Polley believed her directing career was on hold when McDormand approached her and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Given her own domestic situation as well as the sensitivity of the subject matter with which she was dealing, Polley strove hard to make her set as accommodating as possible. Her cast was treated gently, as were the many child actors the story required. Key behind-the-scenes positions were filmed almost entirely by women, and the cast (including big names like Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Claire Foy) soon bonded into the tight-knit family group they were intended to be. Kudos to Ben Wishaw as the sole sympathetic male included within the cast.

 This somber film was not one I could love wholeheartedly, but my respect for it runs deeps.





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