Women Talking may be the most accurately titled film to be released this year. Written and directed by Sarah Polley from a novel by Miriam Toews, the movie is essentially a chamber piece that seems tailor-made for the stage. But cinema is unremitting in its demand for verisimilitude, and Polley’s film is lacking in crucial details that ultimately harm its credibility and blunt its emotional power. Along with this year’s Till, it’s one of the first productions made under the newly relaunched Orion Pictures. It premiered at Telluride and is now receiving a limited release.
In an unknown time in an unknown region, the female members of a small, Mennonite-like community are being drugged with cow tranquilizers and raped while sleeping. The unseen culprits are, in fact, the men of the colony, the husbands and sons whose patriarchal authority, for reasons never explained, has turned from protection to aggression. Only the bruised and bloodied aftermath of the crimes is depicted visually. As the illiterate women gather in secret to discuss whether to stay, fight, or leave, the local schoolteacher (Ben Whishaw) takes the meeting minutes, agreeing not to intervene. The women argue, but their common bond of affliction gives them the courage to fight for a better, more just world for themselves.
The spectacle of women discovering their self-worth, with religious faith as the bedrock, has tremendous dramatic potential. Though Women Talking makes no special appeal to religious audiences, it is respectful of the need for spiritual belief. Several characters quote directly from the Bible, and the final scene has the liberating force of an exodus.
While the novel is based on an actual incident that occurred in Bolivia in 2011, Polley makes the crucial decision to cast her story as a universal fable, thereby erasing the need for specificity and a corresponding sense of plausibility. Because we never see the men interacting with the women, we have no sense of motive. There is talk of marriage but none of the women seem to be married. There is religion, but no prayer or worship. There is presumably a government, but the beliefs and practices that keep the women in domestic servitude are vaguely defined, if at all. Without defining the power dynamics at play, the film’s conflicts are abstracted from their historical context, and by extension real life.
The women are played by a terrific ensemble including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, and Frances McDormand (who also served as one of the producers). Best of all is stage veteran Judith Ivey, who gathers sympathy in a calm, commanding performance. The sense of female strength and solidarity is unmistakable, but the stilted dialogue and allegorical pretensions diminish the characters and turn them into easily defined types. As the schoolteacher, Ben Whishaw has the only male speaking part, and thus provides the only example of an acceptable man: kind, timorous, sexually unthreatening, and quick to apologize for the smallest indiscretion. All of them spend the majority of the running time in a hayloft set against a green screen in which the sun never seems to fully set, yet another detail that doesn’t feel quite right. At the beginning we are told that “what follows is an act of female imagination.” As it turns out, more imagination and less talk would have made a deeper impression.