Voiced: Women Talking
Again I’m not sure there is an expressive enough vocabulary to give justice to the power, emotion and senses of Women Talking — but let’s give it a go… Eloquently directed by Sarah Polley, who is also a co-writer, the film covers women gathering together to discuss what to do with their lives — should they do nothing, stay and fight or leave? And what are the personal and social ramifications of all of this upon their Mennonite community? Another women, life, freedom moment.
Based on real events from 2010, in a remote colony where some men of the community were using cow tranquilizer to knock out and rape women repeatedly, until they were discovered. One man has been seen and caught and confessed the rest of the names of the men involved. Due to the anger of one woman, the accused men have been handed over to the local police in a nearby urban area and jailed — now the other men of the community are taking property (such as money and animals) to cover the bail. Given the imminent return of the men, what will the women do? What does justice look like? What is forgiveness? What does it mean to be a woman of faith?
All of the women of the colony are pretty much uneducated and illiterate — denied access to schools, maps, books — and yet, using drawings, they come together to vote. What should they do? At once, one of the women ‘Scarface Janz’ leaves, trailing her daughter and granddaughter in her wake — why should they ‘do’ anything? August (Ben Whishaw) joins the meeting as their scribe and over time, learns to listen first, with humility and kindness. Burning away is the beautiful, tender romance between himself and educated, deep thinker Ona (Rooney Mara). Frustratingly (although I longed for them to) they never ignite this tender love between them — Ona leaves and August has a deeper role — to teach the boys and young men a better way, and to keep the words of the women as a record of what passed.
Though this could be compared to Witness in style and look, it’s much closer to Prima Facie in exploration, tone and rage. It doesn’t show the attacks themselves — but the aftermath, on the victims. Women wake from sleep bloody, horribly bruised, pregnant, mutilated, violated — with their teeth bashed in — and not just women, but young girls and children. The women and the girls are told to keep quiet by the Elders and the men who should protect and defend them (and listen to them and give them justice) — it’s demons, ghosts, their fevered imaginations, their sin. On and on it goes, until two intrepid young girls catch a potential attacker and get a confession out of them of the vile truth of their activities as a marauding group of men, preying on the women of the community — in their sleep and in their own beds and homes, where they should be safe.
The range of voices is extraordinary — the women are varied, argue, fight, reflect, challenge and disagree with each other; display a range of emotions, apologise to each other as well showing or not showing their ongoing PTSD; they are are all shapes, sizes and ages. It’s also intriguing to note what is not said — the women don’t have the words for what has happened to them. While trans issues are implied, the impact on screen is complex — a girl (apparently the victim of incest) is pregnant, loses the baby created from a horrific attack by the gang, really feels that loss of life and rejects outward femininity, choosing to appear male — yet retreats into silence and protective tender care of children. Nothing is straightforward. But we don’t know — is this a literal brother or a childhood male friend (as close as a brother?)
There is fury too — from the women themselves — collectively, individually and in defense of the innocent. There’s also real forgiveness too as Ona is able to love her unborn child, and resilience as the women work towards making a stand against the power of the male community and expressing themselves — by leaving, and in not being forced to forgive.
Of the characters, Jessie Buckley’s Mariche doesn’t have full force on screen — not Jessie Buckley’s fault — she gives an amazing performance. Mostly due to her because her character arc is rushed at the end and doesn’t have the time to give impact. She is a horribly abused woman — and everyone knows it — the women even blame her for it, for not standing up for herself and her children, for ‘allowing it’. Domestic abuse (especially fueled by addiction) could have been given more time here — she returns to her horrible husband and he beats her and her daughter. Somehow she manages to leave — appearing horribly bruised and battered. Given how much the power of the men played into this situation (and feminine social/cultural shaming too), much more could have been said. Mariche was never really allowed voice, only despised, though there was a little comfort at the end. It’s also implied in a muddled way that her horrible husband was involved in the gang attacking the women — he’s a shadowy figure — and I wish he wasn’t — domestic abusers and rapists have names and faces, are within their communities — not shadowy demons in the background.
Clare Foy as Salome burns with vengeance and anger and justifiably so — her daughter was attacked and she will not stop to keep her and children like her safe. Clare Foy’s words and actions feed into the deep faith and theology of the film — what does it mean to have real, life impacting faith? Who is God and where is He when injustice and wrongs happen? Does He even care? The comfort, power and strength the women get from prayer, from singing psalms and hymns, from being created in the image of God, from wanting to serve and love God (and people), from seeking and wrestling with God even in their deep pain and distress is incredible. And innocence and theology are strands woven throughout the film — at points we see young children freely being children in the fields and feel the horror of such innocence being harmed or threatened with harm by evil men. Our own beliefs, faith, ethics and morality are held up and tested in watching this. Who are we really?
Surprisingly nuanced, the women have consider who will come with them — when do boys stop being children, innocent and become harmful? Lyrically the visuals refocus us — considering who boys are and who they could become — how even their bad qualities could be used for good — if routed in the right ways. Nevertheless a missed opportunity is with Salome, who uses some of the same tactics as the men, for a different end. But more could have been made of this — is her use of power and force justified? And what of her son’s actual wishes? Who decides?
Ultimately, it is women laughing together, a celebration of girlish and female friendships, of sisterhood that remains — even if they are laughing as deeply as they want to lament and cry. Yet the timelessness too is a wonder — when the settlement is randomly ‘invaded’ for counting for a census, ‘Daydream Believer’ is blasted out, clashing with the wooden hand made items, hard graft and dust motes in the barns. The culture clash again confronts us with what do we believe and how do we dream (and enable others to dream?) Do watch for the end credits — Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand had a hand in crafting this remarkable film and it really should win more awards.