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‘Women Talking’ Review: The Power of Speech

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From time to time, “Women Talking” lets its attention wander away from its foremost concern (which is, as you may have guessed, women talking) to watch the hands of ladies as they draw pictures, play complicated clapping and string-figure games or braid each other’s hair into intricate plaits. The grace and discipline of those activities, and the creativity they express, are woven into the film itself, which seems plain-spoken almost to the purpose of artlessness and seems to be as layered and whorled as a hand-woven tapestry.

The ladies are members of an agrarian religious community that has kept its distance from modernity. An outsider’s pickup truck blasting the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” is one in every of a handful of signs that this movie, directed by Sarah Polley from a novel by Miriam Toews, takes place anywhere near the current.

Toews’s book was suggested by actual events that took place within the Nineteen Sixties at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, however the film version doesn’t specify a location or a time. That vagueness reflects each the universality of the story’s themes and what the ladies know of the secular world, which could be very little. Though lots of them can recite the Bible from memory, they haven’t been taught to read and write.

Their educations have been minimal, but their wisdom, acquired through farm and household labor, child-rearing, prayer and intuition, is vast. Or at the least sufficient to spur the emergence of a strong and complicated collective political consciousness. How they arrive at a transparent understanding of their oppression and potential liberation is the film’s subject, a source of suspense, emotion and inspiration.

What the ladies are talking about is what a few of the men within the colony have done to them. Or possibly not quite that: All of them know that a lot of their husbands, brothers, relatives and neighbors have been sneaking into the bedrooms of ladies and girls at night, equipped with a twig used to tranquilize livestock, and raping their unconscious victims. A couple of flashbacks to the aftermaths of a few of the attacks are sufficient to convey their horror. Now that the colony’s elders have admitted the issue and the secular authorities have gotten involved, the query is find out how to respond.

While many of the men are away, bailing the accused perpetrators out of jail, a bunch of ladies meets in a hayloft to hash out a plan of action. The ladies of the community have already voted in a referendum offering three selections: do nothing — forgive, forget and hope for the perfect; stay and fight; or leave. The primary option having been soundly rejected, they settle in to debate the opposite two, arguing the relative merits of exit and voice.

Most of the participants favor exit, but “Women Talking,” as its title suggests, is usually voice — a weave of voices in various arrangements of harmony and dissonance. The calmest and most measured, but in addition in some ways essentially the most passionate and principled, belongs to Ona (Rooney Mara), who’s pregnant. Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), two moms of young children, provide antiphonal chords of anger. Each are victims of male violence, but they often turn their rage on one another. Two older women, Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey), offer sympathy, perspective and occasional grandma jokes, though the crucial spark of mischief comes from the younger generation, boisterously represented by Liv McNeil, Michelle McLeod and Kate Hallett.

There’s also a person within the barn, whose job is to take the minutes of the meeting. His name is August, and he’s played with appropriate sensitivity by Ben Whishaw. Within the book, he can be the narrator, but Polley has replaced him with a lady whom it may be a spoiler to call, leaving August as a reminder that while not all men are monsters to women, every man is implicated within the arrangements of power that enable the monstrosity.

However the movie isn’t in regards to the men. They’re a blank that it’s easy enough to fill in, a set of facts implied within the words and silences of the ladies. Away from their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, the foremost characters experience a comfort that’s clearly familiar, and a freedom that feels latest. Their personalities peek out from behind the scrim of their defined, taken-for-granted roles.

“Women Talking” compels you to take into consideration their plight, but it surely also invites you to enjoy their company. It seems contrary to Polley’s democratic method to single out performances for praise, but I discovered myself coming back to the wit that percolates underneath Foy’s ferocity, the deep sorrow behind McCarthy’s patience, Ivey’s beatitude, Hallett’s rambunctious high humor, Frances McDormand’s heartbreaking silence and August Winter’s unaffected dignity as a gender-nonconforming character named Melvin.

And in addition the poetry of Polley’s images (shot by Luc Montpellier), which show the great thing about life within the colony. Following Toews — and the ladies themselves, whose faith informs their insurrection — Polley takes the religious lifetime of the colony seriously, refusing to treat it as exotic or outlandish. The purpose of leaving isn’t to reject belief, but to reestablish it on a firmer, more coherent moral basis, to assume “a latest colony” of trust and safety.

That concept is by definition Utopian, and likewise consistent with the novel Christian tradition that the prevailing colony represents. The foundation of Protestantism, in spite of everything, is protest — against arbitrary and unaccountable authority within the name of a better truth. “Women Talking” reawakens that concept and applies it, with precision and keenness, to our own time and circumstances. The ladies don’t want pity or revenge. They desire a higher world. Why not listen?

Women Talking
Rated PG-13. They discuss some terrible things. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.

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