ELLY GRIMM • Leader & Times
The decision to leave a harmful situation can be difficult and complex, and one of the Best Picture contenders for this year’s Academy Awards, “Women Talking,” takes on just that. The movie is based on Miriam Towes’s 2018 book, which in turn was inspired by events that occurred in the Manitoba Colony, a Mennonite community in Bolivia. Between 2005 and 2009, more than 100 girls and women in the colony woke up to discover that they had been raped in their sleep, with several of the colony’s men ultimately being convicted and sent to prison. The movie follows a group of women who, on behalf of the other women in the colony, debate on how to react to these events, and they have only 48 hours before the rest of the colony’s men, who are away to post bail for the rapists, return.
While the movie overall is pretty minimalistic in scale, there is plenty to keep viewers’ attention right from the beginning. The opening shot features a young woman awaking to find bruises and wounds sustained from her attack and then calling for her mother, and I was absolutely horrified. And from there, the overall emotional tone of the movie remains pretty gripping. The opening narrator mentions how the attacks were attributed by the colony’s male leaders to ghosts and demons, were God's punishment for their sins, or simply the result of an overactive imagination. It hurt seeing how the victims were gaslighted so badly by people they were supposed to trust, and then the realization hit me very quickly how there are still so many sexual assault victims throughout the world whose stories are similarly dismissed, so I have to give praise to director Sarah Polley for adding that realism to the movie. Another scene that was particularly harrowing to watch was the aftermath of Nettie’s miscarriage, which ultimately causes much other woe, as we see when that backstory is featured.
There were several other aspects Polley did right with this movie, and I can’t believe she wasn’t on the list of nominees for Best Director. Such a story can be very complex to tell, and I was amazed at how she was able to trim things down to make it more palatable as a film. Throughout the discussions in the movie, there are so many different points brought up (i.e. was the man caught actually telling the truth when he named the other rapists and how could that be proved, what caused the men to become rapists and why was a blind eye turned to this situation, among many others). There were multiple times when I was thinking the movie could easily go way deeper and be much, much longer, but somehow, everything was able to be condensed while still maintaining the overall essence of the story. There are no big fight scenes or big action sequences or anything like that typically seen in more modern movies, but the overall storytelling is done very well, just in a quieter manner than what a lot of people might be more accustomed to.
The cinematography helps with setting the overall tone, with the coloring of the movie being almost a cross between black and white and sepia tone. I thought that was a brilliant design choice and a good way to help reflect the rather dark tone of the events of the story. Along with the cinematography, another design element I thought worked out very well was the music. The score used throughout the movie is rather minimal, and it’s not used a lot, but during the moments where the score is playing, it’s EXTREMELY effective and helped with setting those particular scenes. Also deserving of praise as far as design is the costumes. After I watched the movie, I read some behind-the-scenes stories and the costume crew actually visited a Mennonite community store for the fabric and patterns, and it was clear there was care taken to recreate the typical Mennonite dress as closely as possible. Watching the movie almost felt like watching a stage play – there’s minimal sets, a rather small cast for the major scenes and other aspects that avoid being on a grand scale. Overall, it’s very effective.
As far as performances go, I felt like the movie was basically a masterclass in acting and while the movie is primarily an ensemble piece, everyone got a bit of spotlight, which I enjoyed. My favorite performances came from Claire Foy as Salome, who’s definitely the more hotheaded one of the group and is prepared to do harm to the attackers (which most viewers would probably relate to), and Rooney Mara as Ona, who, while angry over the events, is more calm and willing to think things through. And while the ladies are definitely the stars of the movie, I also have to give a shoutout to Ben Whishaw as August, who records everything being said during the meeting. He makes August so sweet and awkward and willing to help, and the bits of his backstory shown/told are also rather tragic.
Overall, I enjoyed “Women Talking” and would give it a solid “A” grade. The overall tone of the movie is very gripping from the opening shot and doesn’t let up as the movie goes on. Director Sarah Polley also did a wonderful job with the screenplay, which lets the movie become basically a masterclass in acting from nearly everyone involved, particularly Claire Foy and Ben Whishaw. The overall production design is also done very well and it was evident to me how much care was taken to make sure everything turned out properly. And fair warning, there are a few scenes that could be potentially triggering for some, so that should be kept in mind if you plan on viewing this movie. If you’re a fan of dramas, “Women Talking” is a good one to cue up or borrow from the library.