“Women Talking”: Book and Film

To some, this may sound like the kind of verbose material more fit for a stage play than a film. But Women Talking, adapted by the writer-director Sarah Polley from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, is vibrant cinema. Shirley Li, The Atlantic

Although it’s not just the women who’ve seen Women Talking who get it, I believe the women reviewers overall might get it better. But as Bob Mondello, NPR, states: “Anyone clear-eyed about the world today will recognize the truths that these women are talking.”

A brief summary of the book Polley adapted for the screen. Lily Meyer, NPR, indicates that the novel’s author, Miriam Toews, penned a pertinent Author’s Note (part of which also introduces the film):

Between 2005 and 2009, she explains, eight men in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia raped many of the girls and women in their community, first rendering them unconscious with cow anesthetic. Women Talking is ‘both a reaction through fiction to these true-life events, and an act of female imagination.’ It is also a work of deep moral intelligence, a master class in ethics beautifully dressed as a novel.

Women Talking is comprised of the conversations that occur over the course of a couple days while the men go away to attend to related legal issues. Katrina Onstad, The Guardian: “One woman defends these conversations: ‘There’s no plot, we’re only women talking.’ It’s a brilliant meta-line that functions as a pre-emptive strike against critics. And the ‘only’ is sharply ironic: in this place – as has often been the case throughout history – women talking is not a small thing, but is in itself action and hence plot.”

Regarding the movie version, Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “The women meet in the barn and discuss their options, boiled down to three: 1.) Do nothing 2.) Stay and fight 3.) Leave the community.”

They ask the only man left—a former apostate named August, who has returned to the community as a schoolteacher—to ‘take the minutes’ of their meeting. (None of the women can read or write.) ‘Taking the minutes’ is an artificial device, but it’s the book’s organizing principle.

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post:

Within the first few minutes, the main characters make their cases with ferocity, quiet logic or transcendent spiritual belief, depending on their temperament: Pregnant Ona, played with beatific calm by Rooney Mara, proffers her idea of a just outcome, wherein the men agree that women will be equal and educated members of a reconfigured community. Claire Foy’s Salome, outraged at what has been done and condoned, is far less serene, as is spiky Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who advocates for staying, with misgivings that become clearer as the women’s debate ebbs, flows and finally comes to its exhilarating conclusion.

Emily Zemler, The Observer:

Each character has her own beliefs and experiences, but they all want the same thing, which is to feel safe. Ona (Rooney Mara) remains optimistic despite what’s happened to her. August loves her, but she is desperate to find a life outside the colony…Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) stand in as the elder generation, who have been wronged for even longer. Frances McDormand, also a producer, plays a colony leader who is opposed to any discussion of leaving.

Safety from the Sexual Trauma

More from Hornaday: “‘I’m sorry,’ says August (Ben Whishaw)…’One day, I’d like to hear that from someone who should be saying it,’ comes the reply.”

Emily Zemler, The Observer: “It would easy to call Women Talking a #MeToo movie, but it’s a lot more than that. These aren’t trendy conversations; they’re long-held struggles that people of all genders have faced for generations.”

Lindsey Bahr, Chicago Tribune: “‘Women Talking’ is not melodramatic or desperate or exploitative. It is astute and urgent and may just help those previously unable to find words or even coherent feelings for their own traumatic experiences. And hopefully it might just inspire more works of wild female imagination.”

Two Other Themes: Forgiveness, Leaving Vs. Fleeing

Tomris Laffly, The Wrap: “The debate that unfolds around forgiveness in ‘Women Talking’ remains a radical one throughout, one that differentiates between forgiveness that’s often seen as ‘permission to do more of the same’ and true, unforced forgiveness. Equally invigorating is the women’s logical dissection of the unapologetic autonomy that sets ‘leaving’ and ‘fleeing’ apart.”

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