An endless – or seems like it – dirge on, I mean passionate contemplation of, the boundless and unfettered evils of men, Sarah Polley’s film plays like an overly earnest student theatre project, one acutely afflicted by Philosophy 101 parsing of every comment, statement or conjecture as a means to fill its running time. It is, of course, very worthy and – because it sets its sights on entrenching division and discord, in this case in the gender arena – consummately Hegelian in motive. It’s thus, it goes without saying, Exhibit A in wokeness unbound, engineered less for an audience – who have obliged by avoiding it in droves – than for Twitterati responses, approving think pieces, and awards inclusivity. Women Talking’s been roundly labelled a #MeToo piece, except that, in this Mennonite microcosm, there’s no need to put your hand up. Victimhood is de facto and assured.
One thing I’ll give it: you can’t accuse the film of failing to do what it says on the tin. Ad infinitum. The actual events that inspired Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel – at the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia – are, of course, horrifying (namely, the drugging and raping of girls and women by a group of the men over a five-year period), which make them ideal fodder for cynical manipulation. Thus, this community is, by allusion, the world, and its women are all women. Polley is making her statement for all women everywhere, particularly when – possibly – inventing smart comebacks for customs officials. She’s doubtless fully addicted to the Kool-Aid, so I suspect her intentions are utterly genuine, bizarre as that may sound, given how teetering-on-absurdity Women Talking is in terms of structure and tortuously circular argument. Of course, the best proponents of a cause are those dyed in the wool, such that they are no longer an individual, they are the cause. This is the point and purpose of the picture. We are not individuals. We are genders.
Women Talking comes in the wake of the serialised agonies of The Handmaid’s Tale, also dedicated to the invidious nature of the patriarchy run amok; make certain to show the extreme of behaviour as an encapsulation of the beast lurking within all. Excepting simpering, weedy Ben Wishaw, that is, as no one could ever believe he’d be “mannish” (Wishaw’s August, the educated teacher, is there to take minutes; he’s an honorary girl, and as painfully respectful of the womenfolk as his otherwise absent gender are grotesque and brutish).
The women gather to chew the fat over three options while the men have – obligingly, in terms of the telling – gone to the city en masse to post bail for the attackers. They are to forgive their rapists or leave the colony. As such, they can: do nothing; stay and fight; leave. “What follows is an act of female imagination” we are told, which isn’t something Polley (as adaptor) should be trumpeting. Women Talking rather evidences a paucity thereof.
There are vague attempts here to inspire a more philosophical challenge, of systems and obeisance thereto that apply to all parties, and the idea that any oppressive order is indoctrinating the oppressors as much as it is the oppressed, but the ground for discussion is essentially didactically poised.
When the subject of the elders comes up, the picture’s one opportunity for perceiving the broader template is available, and one might argue the remove of Women Talking from the specific events that inspired it is designed expressly to present, as suggested above, the colony as the world. Rooney Mara’s Ona, almost impossibly wise and moderate, comments “It’s the elders’ quest for power that is responsible. Because they need to have those they’d have power over”. Which is, if you substitute elders for the Elite, the system that enslaves all and sets up the Hegelian oppositions that keep everyone focussed on the wrong targets: “… that all of us… are victims of the circumstances in which the colony has been created”.
Indeed, the gathered gals observe “the boys and men have been excellent students”, but later too that “It’s not only the men and boys who’ve been excellent students”. Those who are excellent students are, for sure, those like Polley who recite the dictated doctrine at any given cultural epoch, assimilating that which seems correct and reasonable and progressively laudable without looking behind it to the motives of the Elite (or elders). As such, when their oversight has been dispensed with, the question applying to the Mennonite women really does apply to the world at large: “When we’ve liberated ourselves, we’ll have to ask ourselves who we are”.
But no, such an encompassing interpretation of the material doesn’t in any way compensate for Women Talking as a whole; by definition, it essays itself on gender demarcation. Their discussion barely merits fifteen minutes of rumination, let alone 100. It achieves its length through clumsily seizing on every statement, each participant finishing their disquisition at a point where another can riff, be it on forgiveness, or culpability, what they leave behind, or whom. Perhaps there was a similar debate between Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s five wives prior to the beginning of Mad Max: Fury Road, but fortunately, George Miller cut to the chase.
And instead of impassive Tom Hardy, we have Wishaw emotionally soiling himself every five minutes. There’s an awfully sensitive score from Hildur Guònadóttir (Tár) that tingles over the hayloft. The performances are decent across the board, as much as they can be, given the limits of what’s on the table (Rooney’s peaceable, Claire Foy’s vengeful, Jessie Buckley vituperative). Curiously, this religiously unyielding community seems accepting of a trans man (played by August Winter, partial to plural pronouns), which does rather, on the face of things, undermine its credibility. And one might suggest expectant Ona loving her child regardless as a rebuke of abortion, but Polley’s careful to make it clear she’s an exception, not the rule. She even has feelings for Wishaw (“She loves you too, August. She loves everyone” – ouch).
Women Talking’s your redundant kind of a preaching-to-the-choir product that doesn’t need to be a good film because it’s an IMPORTANT one. Hence its Best Picture Oscar nomination. It may win Best Adapted Screenplay due to such fait-accompli integrity, but it’s otherwise this year’s Nightmare Alley (as in, a head-scratching “How did that get a nod?”)