Based on Miriam Toews 2018 novel of the same name, itself inspired by a series of crimes committed against the women of a Mennonite community between 2005 and 2009, Canadian actor-turned-director Sarah Polley’s latest is described as a ‘work of female imagination’ but is about very real experience. Polley is not especially subtle in her allegory, and nor does she need to be: the exceptionally well-made Women Talking gets to the point in its sheer, righteous invective.
In an extreme patriarchal, closed-off Mennonite community, night after night women and girls wake up with bruised inner thighs, bleeding, terrible memories of assault and eventually, some fall pregnant. The men claim it is the work of the Devil, or ghosts, or simply hysterical female imagination, but the obvious truth is that some of the men in the community are drugging and raping the women at night, while most of the rest turn a blind eye. Eventually, the perpetrators are caught in the act and are taken to jail in the city. But the male elders decree that it is the women who will ultimately have to face the consequences, either by forgiving the rapists, staying in the community to fight them, or leaving and facing excommunication from the Church.
In many respects, Women Talking is a film of inversions. All of the violence happens off screen: the action, such as it is, is confined to speech. And in keeping keeping the film confined largely to the barn in which the women conduct their debates, the marginalised finds themselves centred while the men are made figuratively and literally invisible. They are thus stripped of their power but also rendered as apparitions: ghouls that come in the night to wreak terrible harm. Some critics have baulked at the ‘stagey-ness’ of the production, but such a criticism, I would argue, betrays an unease, or at least an obliviousness, at the disruption to the patriarchal narrative structures that would otherwise centre the rapists by having them on screen.
Above all, Women Talking is a film of performances, though Polley is careful that in her film about women’s collective solidarity no performance rises above the other. Nevertheless, individuals stand out with their own unique tribulations: on top of the rapes, Jessie Buckley’s Mariche is routinely abused by her alcoholic husband, while Ona (Rooney Mara) pines for a life with August (Ben Whishaw) – one of the colony’s few decent men – that can never be. Each of the women has their own reasons for wishing to remain or flee and the film never comes down on any particular side; no one is condemned for cowardice, nor for brashness. Crucially, the women are rarely, if ever united in agreement, yet they remain in solidarity against their common enemy, though the frequent fractures among the group are a warning of the precious fragility of that solidarity.
Luc Montpellier’s colour cinematography is so washed out to be rendered almost monochrome, giving the film the feel of an historical period piece. This matches the technological and cultural past that the isolated colony inhabits but belies the film’s modern 2010 setting, an irony compounded by the fact that the rape culture faced by the women is merely an extreme version of the same faced by contemporary Western culture. Artefacts from the modern world cannot help but creep in to the colony’s world: August takes minutes with a plastic ballpoint pen; when men from the city come, ‘Daydream Believer’ plays on their radio, and one cannot help but wonder what fate will befall the women, ill-equipped for the 21st century, should they decide to leave.
On the surface, Little Women is not an especially subtle film, nor is it one with particular visual flair. It is open to criticisms of being ‘stagey’ and with its focus on strong performances and contemporary issues seems baited to turn the heads of awards voters. But looking closer reveals an exceptionally well made piece of work, with layers of irony, superb performances and an urgent, righteous fury from which critics and audiences, quite frankly, have little right to expect much subtlety.