Film & Television

Oscar Winner ‘Women Talking’ on Amazon Prime

This past Sunday, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded its 95th Oscar for Best Picture. The award — as many predicted, including myself — went to Everything Everywhere All at Once, an exhausting genre-bending sci-fi action-adventure with an unlikely heroine thrust into a marvelous and messy multiverse.

By and large, this year’s ten nominees (the category was expanded in 2020) trended toward the bigger-than-life. There was “the war to end all wars” (All Quiet on the Western Front), a CGI extravaganza (Avatar: The Way of Water), musical geniuses (Elvis and Tár), adventures in the air and at sea (Top Gun: Maverick and Triangle of Sadness), an autobiographical homage to the magic of movies (The Fabelmans), and an existential Irish bromance turned sour that devolves into self-mutilation (The Banshees of Inisherin).

Perhaps the least likely nomination is Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley, and produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Frances McDormand. As the title implies, the nearly two-hour film comprises eight women, attired identically in muted floral dresses and kerchiefs, gathered in a hayloft … talking. But if this sounds boring, rest assured, it is anything but. Women Talking is alternately dramatic, thrilling, horrifying, and at last triumphant. 

Polley based her script on the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, which itself was based on a real-life atrocity in a Mennonite community in Bolivia. The set-up is as straightforward as it is horrific. The female members of a fundamentalist community are being repeatedly drugged and raped. The gang that has been committing these assaults has been taken into custody “for their own protection,” and the rest of the community’s men have followed to bail them out. The women, left alone temporarily, must decide whether to forgive their attackers (do nothing), stay and fight, or leave. And, before we apply our own sensibilities to their  decision, it’s important to understand that they believe leaving will mean excommunication and forfeiting their place in heaven.

When the women can’t decide between staying or going, they elect a small senate to deliberate. These are the women in the hayloft, matriarchs and daughters of three prominent families. A sole man, the community’s schoolteacher, is included to record minutes of the meeting; the women can neither read nor write. 

What proceeds is not simply a debate; the women examine everything from their duty to their faith to the nuances of their language. “Is fleeing the same as leaving?” “Is forgiveness that is forced upon us true forgiveness?” The film opens with a title card, “What follows is an act of female imagination.” Against unbearably high stakes, the women are trying to imagine a new world, diametrically opposed to the only one they’ve ever known. “Surely,” insists one woman, “There must be something worth living for in this life as well as the next.”

A movie with so little plot, so constricted a setting (and no special effects or CGI) relies on the talents of its cast. Polley’s ensemble is nothing less than superb. 

Judith Ivy and Sheila McCarthy are Agata and Greta, representing the older generation, torn between a lifetime of obedience and the desire to protect their daughters and granddaughters. Rooney Mara is soft-spoken Ona, a “spinster” and “slut,” pregnant with the child of one of her assailants. She longs to raise her child elsewhere. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, a battered wife who can’t imagine leaving her abusive husband. And, Claire Foy is Salome, filled with such rage that she “will become a murderer” if she stays.

“We are not all murderers,” Mariche insists. “Not yet,” Ona gently amends.

McDormand, who has never phoned in a role in her life, is onscreen briefly as one of the community elders, but leaves the proceedings quickly when the others don’t agree that staying is the only option. (As a producer and multi-Oscar winner, she appears prominently on the movie poster, but is secondary to the action here.) Ben Whishaw is compassionate as August, the schoolteacher, who loves Ona but must stay to make sure the next generation of community boys is raised to do and to be better. In Toews’s novel, August serves as narrator. For the movie, Polley assigns that function to Autje (Kate Hallett), Mariche’s teenage daughter.

The screenplay, for which Polley won a well-deserved Oscar Sunday, is flawless. In fact, she rewrote it more than a dozen times, framing the story from each character’s perspective. It reads like a play (in much the same style as The Crucible or Twelve Angry Men), but is never dull. As details of the women’s lives are revealed — the ages of some of the victims, the consequences of years of assaults, the fact that the women have been told the attacks were satanic or, worse, figments of imagined female hysteria — we experience as much tension and fear as we would watching any thriller or horror movie. Women Talking is deeply moving and remarkably exciting. There is real risk in what the women are contemplating.

Women Talking comes at a time when both the producers and consumers of Hollywood are acutely aware of sexual misconduct. The community at the film’s center, which is never given a name or location, is completely isolated and as such allegorical. All of its men (save August) are either criminal or complicit, and they all deserve their fate. As Polley explained to The Atlantic, “At the beginning of the [#MeToo] movement, there were conversations about, like, ‘I just want to ship all of these men who have done these things to an island, and I don’t ever hear from them again.’ Unfortunately, there is no such island, you know? … I think forgiveness is a very, very complex thing that can be misinterpreted in a thousand ways.” 

For me, the most relevant — and resonant — line in Women Talking comes from one of the grandmothers, Agata.

“Perhaps forgiveness can, in some instances, be confused with permission.”

Enough said.

Women Talking is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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