In a rural Mennonite community, the women wake up to the realization men have been drugging them, climbing through their windows at night, and brutally raping them. The elders try to talk it away as the work of Satan, ghosts, or overworked female imaginations. But eventually one man is caught in the act, names the other perpetrators, and the law hauls them away. While the other men rally around them and travel to the city to bail them out, the women are left to conjure their choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
Writer-director Sarah Polley’s stark portrait of the cruel dilemma facing these marginalized women takes place in 2010 and was inspired by real events in Bolivia…but it could’ve taken place anywhere, anytime. The levels of trauma and psychological and emotional minefields the women endure are sadly, painfully, universal and as potent today in America as they were in what may as well have been medieval times. I was astounded by how Polley presented this world as both insular and so large all at once. Both eerily remote and expansively familiar. Yet it is not alien at all, and indeed a microcosm of our world.
Polley stages much of the drama in Women Talking like a play with the three generations of women all making their points and counterpoints often echoing Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men in its finely tuned theatrics. The color scheme is drab and ominous, yet the framing and editing of occasional wistful voice-overs and inner thoughts brought to life take on the dreamy life of a more refined, focused Terence Malick. While there are ghosts of other works here, Polley successfully creates a tone and style all her own, and the amazing ensemble cast relishes the spotlight. As powerful as some of the soliloquies are, Polley is equally adept at character development revealed through the briefest of glances, a playful visual interlude, creating a rich, nuanced patchwork of a community tearing at the seams that somehow still has moments of transcendent joy amidst the tremendous pain and sadness.
Polley, while clearly wanting to make some sharp-pointed arguments, also respects her characters, our shared humanity, and the context of their predicament. Faith, family, and yes, even humor help them come to terms with their dire situation, and most importantly…come to a decision that is all their own.
This sounds truly horrifying, but with a good moral to the story. I’m intrigued.