The Movie Waffler New to Prime Video - WOMEN TALKING | The Movie Waffler

New to Prime Video - WOMEN TALKING

New to Prime Video - WOMEN TALKING
The women of a religious commune debate how to proceed after a series of sexual assaults.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Sarah Polley

Starring: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Wishaw, Frances McDormand

Women Talking poster

Between 2005 and 2009, dozens of female members, aged from three to 65, of a Bolivian Mennonite colony were sexually abused by men who would sneak into their homes at night and knock out their entire families with cow tranquiliser. Inspired by the ghastly case, author Miriam Toews, who was raised in a similar commune herself, wrote the 2019 book Women Talking, which imagines a debate between the colony's women over whether to leave, stay and fight the men, or stay and pretend nothing had happened.

It should be a great setup for a movie, but in the hands of writer/director Sarah Polley it's a confusing and frustrating experience, a missed opportunity given the story's potential and the impressive cast she's assembled, which includes the likes of Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand.

Women Talking review

Polley's film opens at the point where several men have been arrested by the local police. The rest of the men, save for sympathetic teacher August (Ben Whishaw) and transgender assault victim Melvin (August Winter), have headed into town to post bail for the accused. Using this window of opportunity, several of the colony's women gather in a hay loft to carry out their debate.

Women Talking has the makings of a great piece of confrontational drama in the mould of 12 Angry Men, but the film never seems all that interested in its central debate. It isn't so much a case of one section of the women convincing the others to come over to their side as it is a game of ideological musical chairs. The final decision feels arbitrary, as though the movie's run time had lapsed and some decision, any decision, had to be made at that moment. The women certainly do a lot of talking, but not so much debating or even conversing. Much of the film consists of monologues that stray from the central urgent decision at hand in order to make some crude points about the potential for evil that lurks within men. Perhaps because one of its producers is alleged domestic abuser Brad Pitt, the movie is keen to point out that not all men (a character literally says the words "not all men" at one point) are bad, as represented by Whishaw's August, a nervy type who comes off as a parody of a male feminist ally.

Women Talking review

The main issue with Women Talking is that it never convinces us it's taking place in the real world. Polley moves the story from Bolivia to the US, which raises a lot of questions that are left unanswered. For a start, where are the authorities? Wouldn't the FBI be all over this place, Waco style? Likewise, wouldn't the colony be swamped by the media? Such questions could have been dismissed had Polley opted to set the film a hundred years ago or more, which would have had no effect on the central narrative.

There are similar questions about the workings of the Mennonite colony. In the real life case the attackers knocked out entire families, including husbands and sons, but Polley's version suggests that the women victims were living alone, which seems odd for a Mennonite colony. Don’t these people get married off at a young age? How are there so many single women in this place? We're told that the women have been denied any form of education, yet they speak as though they're attending a student union meeting at Sarah Lawrence. Perhaps the biggest question is why all the men would leave, allowing the women a chance to conspire against them.

Women Talking review

Women Talking plays very much like a secular critique of religion, one that displays a misunderstanding of the religious mindset. We're told the women have been convinced from childhood that if they disobey their men they will forfeit their place in the kingdom of Heaven, and that if they don’t forgive their attackers they'll be turned away from the pearly gates. You would think then that this would be the central bone of contention in this debate – after all, acceptance into God's kingdom is what these women have built their entire lives around – but it's barely raised. People don’t tend to walk away from their faith, regardless of how they've been treated by those who administer it. Believe me, I'm Irish, so I'm well familiar with women clinging onto religion despite being treated horrendously by the church. My late aunt was imprisoned in a Magdalene laundry as a teen for the crime of becoming pregnant out of wedlock, and her child was stolen from her and sold to a family in the US. Despite this, she continued to attend mass for the rest of her life. It's no surprise that in the real life case the women opted to stay despite the horrors that had been inflicted upon them. Polley opens her film with a pretentious bit of text that declares her film a work of "female imagination." A flight of fancy might be more apt.

Women Talking
 is on Prime Video UK now.

2023 movie reviews