Friday, December 2, 2022

Women Talking is as emotionally devastating as it is deeply human


Women Talking is a movie about characters who contemplate breaking the norms of the society they call home, so it shouldn't be a surprise that Sarah Polley's latest directorial effort subtly shatters some standards of "good" filmmaking. There's this perception among people, and I've sometimes contributed to it, that narration itself is bad, it's something that goes against the whole "show don't tell" mold that defines "good" filmmaking. To be sure, bad narration can be clumsy, but it's not innately a bad tool. For Women Talking, narration illuminating the points of view of these lead characters feels important and true to the crux of this story. These are people who, as said in an early piece of narration, don't have the language to comprehend their grief. The words in the narration aren't here to spoon-feed every onscreen detail to the audience, but rather reflect people coming to terms with the horrors that have become their everyday reality.

Women Talking, among its countless other accomplishments, quietly subverts these kinds of filmmaking norms, with its decision to focus a movie on survivors of sexual assaults and rape being equally compelling and distinct. Such bold choices are used to produce a story that clutches your eyes and burrows into your soul.

Based on the Miriam Toews book of the same name, Women Talking chronicles a collection of women living in a Mennonite colony who have a choice to make. They've uncovered the truth that the men in their colony have been raping them, an act the elders of their community are eager to dismiss altogether. These women are now grappling with what to do next. Do they just continue their existence, stay and fight, or leave for an unknown future? Much of Polley's script focuses on eight women, including the haunted Salome (Claire Foy), the dubious Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and the hopeful Ona (Rooney Mara), debating their varying perspectives and hopes for their future. They've been silenced for so long. Now, they have a chance to speak.

A friend of mine compared Women Talking in its scope and atmosphere to 12 Angry Men and that's a pretty apt comparison. Much like that 1957 Sidney Lumet film, Women Talking is proof you don't need a multitude of locations or an expansive scope to grip people's attention. Confining much of Women Talking to the top floor of a barn turns out to be a wise decision for the intimate story Polley is telling. We as viewers need to feel how few options these characters have, their world is so limited that they're unaware of the names of places lying far beyond their community. The limited scope of Women Talking's story quietly reinforces how trapped these characters are well, while the tight backdrop also affords more opportunities for the varying personalities in the script to smash into one another.

Such compelling drama unfolds when Women Talking just focuses on these dialogue exchanges, which are often punctuated by appropriately startling and abrupt images of the past (such as teeth falling out of a woman's mouth or another character waking up in the middle of the night and screaming in pain). This editing technique brings us into the minds of these women as they offer up their testimonies and, internally, re-experience their trauma all over again. We get to hear the words they choose to finally express themselves while also getting a glimpse into the horrifying realities they're reeling from. It's such a great piece of editing and directing that lends further insight into the minds of these characters without proving disruptive to the immersive world Polley is creating.

Much of that immersiveness comes from the fully-realized performances within the ensemble cast. Though they're playing women who inhabit a colony where individuality is strictly forbidden, there are still such welcome idiosyncrasies in each of their performances. Claire Foy, for instance, lends such vibrant and compelling (not to mention justifiable) passion in her line deliveries, while Rooney Mara lends believability to the poetic observations of Ona. This is a character who could have easily lapsed into being a parody of herself, but Mara just makes Ona's lines feel true, not trite or straining for profoundness. Meanwhile, Ben Whishaw, as August, a man tasked with penning the minutes of these meetings between women, is outstanding in portraying such a complicated soft-spoken fellow. It's a role that makes great use of Whishaw's gift for quiet yet impactful performances and this actor's talents in that area delivers some of the most striking emotional moments of Women Talking.

The unforgettable qualities of Women Talking even extend to its fascinating handling of religious entities. Specifically, in several moments of emotional distress, these women will turn to singing familiar religious hymns to one another to help their spirits rise again. It's such a delicate yet complex detail, as these women are, on the surface, employing songs not only heralded by their oppressors but that also promote a religion that informed their suppression. The use of these tunes isn't to minimize the horrors these women have experienced at the hands of a religious institution, but rather to show these survivors of abuse reclaiming tools once used to silence the voices. Words and passages previously utilized for the purpose of suppressing dissent are now being repurposed to encourage women to open up about their experiences. 

What an incredible element to incorporate into the narrative and one that speaks to just how detailed the psychology of these varied characters is. Such psychologies are explored without ever pushing the abusive men themselves into the forefront of either the narrative or the frame (we only see such figures in the background and often heavily obscured). We see the psychological and physical aftermath that these oppressive forces are having on the women of Women Talking, but Polley's camera is always lingering on survivors of sexual assault rather than those who perpetrate it. It's an approach that evokes, among many other movies, Kitty Green's The Assistant and speaks to the commendably subversive narrative priorities of Women Talking. The figures in this story are meant to be seen as human beings with wildly varying responses to trauma, not just figures to be exclusively used for endless and repetitive scenes of on-screen sexual misery like in In the Land of Blood and Honey.

These and other critical parts of Polley's understated yet moving filmmaking speak to how well Women Talking handles harrowing material. But what's also impressive are the handful of moments where levity breaks into the story. A well-timed joke involving an elderly character thinking she's gone blind only to then realize her glass have merely fogged up, for instance, may have seem like a weird tonal digression in a lesser movie. But here, these and other superbly-placed moments of humor accentuate the complexity of these characters who are capable of experiencing every emotion under the sun. By seeing them laugh together, we are reminded of the joy they are largely deprived of in the community they inhabit. These unique tonal moments highlight how, in this barn with just other women (plus August), Saloma, Ona, Mariche, and every other lady can finally be their complicated varied selves.

As a filmmaker, Sarah Polley has never shied away from brutal material. Her directorial debut, Away from Her, was about an elderly couple fragmented by Alzheimer's, she basically jumped into the deep end as a filmmaker right away. Meanwhile, her 2012 documentary Stories We Tell was an unflinching look at both her family's history and her own identity. That streak continues on with Women Talking, with Polley's gift for handling heavy concepts flourishing inside this feature's rule-breaking spirit. Traditional rules of movies say that you can't center narratives about sexual assault on people who've experienced it (even the recent She Said followed this rule), yet Women Talking focuses its runtime on several people who've survived rape. The history of cinema, meanwhile, is littered with the erasure of trans characters and performers, yet Women Talking makes room for trans experiences with the character of Melvin (August Winter). On and on the list goes as Women Talking constantly redefines "normal" in cinematic language, often without viewers even realizing the norms have been shattered.

Both Polley being in rare form as a director and the rule-breaking standards of this production have the incredible domino effect of also bringing out the best in all the other artists working on Women Talking, including the various members of the movie's stacked ensemble cast. A work as richly human as it is subversive of cinema norms, Women Talking is nothing short of outstanding.

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