When female members of a society have no voice, they can either surrender to the status quo, fight their oppressors, or leave (provided there’s some place to go). These are the options presented in Women Talking (2022), which received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Based on Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name, which was inspired by true events that took place from 2005 to 2009 in Bolivia, the film focuses on the women and girls of a Mennonite community who were tranquilized and raped in their sleep. While their attackers (husbands and other men in the colony) are briefly imprisoned, the female faction meets in secret to decide what to do.
As the characters grapple with their faith in God and the dangers presented on Earth, they weigh the consequences of an unknown good over the familiarity of a known evil. No doubt, they’ll continue to be abused if they stay, yet will be shunned by the community and unwelcome in Heaven if they leave.
As important as their final decision is, the film’s most powerful point has to do with the characters’ willingness to articulate their position and hear out opposing views. The ability to debate depends on open dialogue and if speech is shut down, so is free will.
During the course of conversation, Rooney Mara, Ben Whishaw and SIU/ISU alum Judith Ivey give naturalistic portrayals. Co-producer Frances McDormand is also part of the ensemble cast that includes Shayla Brown, Vivien Endicott Douglas, Kira Guloien, Kate Hallett, Michelle McLeod, Sheila McCarthy, Liv McNeil, and Emily Mitchell. England’s Claire Foy and Ireland’s Jessie Buckley stand out as they deliver palpable performances despite sounding strained by their American accents.
Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, who became the first woman to win an Academy Award in the Original Score category for her work on Joker (2019), adds intentional tension with her music, as Canadian cinematographer Luc Montpellier’s desaturated tones paint a picture of a life that’s filled with drudgery.
These technical additions are effective yet the drama could stand alone as a play since it’s primarily set in one location, has a relatively short runtime, and features more dialogue than action. While the latter is expected in theater, it can be a liability on screen where the general rule is show, don’t tell.
Of course, that poses a challenge when dealing with sexual and physical abuse. Thankfully, the assaults take place off camera but one wonders if there are more cinematic ways of relaying the story other than relying on women talking. It doesn’t help that director Sarah Polley’s Oscar-winning screenplay relies heavily on exposition and narration; that the sheltered and illiterate characters seem well educated; or that the conflict wraps up a little too easily.
Nevertheless, the film poses timeless alternatives to society’s ever-changing obstacles. When women of today come up against various forms of modern misogyny, they should ask themselves whether to say nothing for fear of being shunned or to speak up for their rights.
Women Talking is playing in select theaters and can be streamed on Amazon Prime.