Monday With Mildred: “Women Talking”

Women Talking movie poster

Women Talking

Well more than a year ago I started reading about this movie. Based on a book I had no interest in reading, with a story I had no interest in seeing, I had not intended to ever watch it. But lately I’ve been hearing Oscar buzz, which does nothing for me but made me think it might be an all right film to see in a couple of years when it comes out on dvd. Then IU Cinema offered it for free, nearly a month before wide release date so of course I had to go for that reason alone. Imagine how tickled I was when it was announced that United Artists, who owns the film, had a piracy monitor on site, and even a hint of a recording device would get the patron bounced, their device confiscated, and a ban on their attendance at IU Cinema. First movie I’ve been to in a very long time that didn’t have at least one cell phone light up.

The Q&A after the movie was a rambling mess so that part was a wash, but I was not the only person that night who was rapt while taking in this almost entirely woman made movie. That makes everything look different, since, you know, women and men are different.  The traditional three act structure gets fuzzy, there doesn’t tend to be quickening action leading to a climax at the end, and everything from the cinematography to the music looks and sounds different.

Set in 2010, a Mennonite community is rocked when it’s finally discovered that women aren’t waking up with bruises on the insides of their thighs and dripping with blood because Satan, or their faith is lacking. Shockingly, it turns out to be the men tranquilizing and then raping the women at night, so they are arrested. All the other men go in support but they will return in two days. They leave a message for the women: forgive them because of our religion. The women must decide before the men return whether they will indeed forgive them, or stay and fight for their rights, or just leave entirely. They take a vote, each woman making an X below the glyph that denotes each choice. Only boys are taught to read and write. After the vote a kind of senate gathers in the hayloft of the community’s largest barn to discuss the latter two choices. The only man still in the village is the schoolteacher, August, and he takes the minutes and mostly keeps his mouth shut.

Sounds like a snoozefest, right? A very large part of the movie is women talking to each other in a barn, so that’s what I expected. Right off, though, I noticed the acting is amazing, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the cast. Rooney Mara (Lisbet Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays Ona, the sweet sister, and is the actress mentioned first in nearly all the pre-release talk. Claire Foy (Lisbet Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is Salome, the fiery sister who is really, really, really angry. Like, really. Jessie Buckley (Men) is Mariche, also very angry, but at odds with Salome. There is some venomous arguing between the two. Judith Ivey (New Amsterdam) is Agata, the mother of the sisters and respected matron of the community. Frances McDormand has the best character name, Scarface Janz, and some other actors are Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, and August Winter, whose character has cut off their hair, wears overalls instead of dresses, and would like people to use their name. Melvin.

A lot of deeply philosophical questions and issues are thrown at the audience, and at least to me one of them involved Melvin. It’s great to see a trans character, even in a relatively small role, but I don’t like the idea that people will think trans people “become” that way through trauma. The biggest issues involve being forced to forgive, what would each of the three choices really look like, can the boys be un-taught the lessons they’ve been receiving from the men? That’s by far not all of the topics, and everything comes at the audience quickly. I will have to watch this movie again to try and unpack the dense plot. I’m looking forward to seeing Salome’s agonized soliloquy, which ends in one sentence that turns the movie on a dime. Of the rapes themselves there is little graphic content. The audience sees the immediate aftermath and hints to their emotional trauma, but there is no prurient lingering over the act.

Claire Foy is not the only incredible actor doing their best work in Women Talking, and that is of course due to the director Sarah Polley. She co-wrote the screenplay with the novelist Miriam Toews, but the director also wrangles other elements of a film, like lighting and cinematography, art direction and costuming, music, etc. There are more than a few moments when the film becomes luminous in its beauty, especially as it highlights the women in their existential struggle. The camera will linger on a still form sitting on a hay bale, and no matter who it is she will look like a Rembrandt painting. Hildur Guđnatóttir wrote the score for this at the same time she wrote the score for Tar. The music here is, of course, very folksy and performed with down to earth instrumentation with a humble sound that lends power to every scene. Another part of the music is the women singing traditional spirituals. At one point they sing while in the hayloft, and the sound reverberates in the large space and exits through the large hay door to flow over the community of women anxiously awaiting a verdict. The sound is soothing and a promise and only one of many powerful moments in the film.

Something I did not expect was that now and then there is a hilarious moment that had the audience howling in surprise and relief. The film is unrelenting as it marches toward an end that had them talking as they left the theater.

Women Talking is in probably the top five best movies I’ve ever seen. Every single aspect of the movie is superb and I believe there will be many Oscar nominations coming next year.  Even the women’s hair might be nominated. This film has haunted my thoughts for days, with more than a few scenes coming into focus only after some thought. I need to see it again, and I really hope you see it when you get a chance.


CFR: In Addition: Holy Toledo Blades! Way to go Mildred for reviewing a movie very few have seen yet. Huzzah!

Now I think I saw this movie being talked about (pun, yeah, I know) and thought it looked too depressing. But if Mildred loves it, I may have to see it. OR have Mildred over for a CFR movie marathon. This will be there. Thanks Mildred!!

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