The Cameo, Edinburgh
Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is an unusual film, in that it really is all in the words. It’s a film to listen to, rather than a film to watch. Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, itself based on a true story, it is billed as an ‘imagined response to real events’. This is, to my mind, both its strength and its weakness.
The real events are shocking: in Bolivia, between 2005 and 2009, more than a hundred girls and women were drugged and raped by the men in their Mennonite community. They were knocked out with cattle tranquillisers so that, when they woke up – bruised and bloody, pregnant and diseased – they didn’t really know what had happened, although terrifying fragments of memory sometimes surfaced. The men offered various explanations: they had been visited by ghosts or the devil; they were lying; they were hysterical. Eventually, two men were caught in the act; they gave other names, and eight were gaoled.
To their credit, neither the book nor the film dwell on the violence. We’ve all seen too many women brutalised on screen. Instead, they deal with the imagined aftermath. The story is moved to Canada; the collective victims ascribed characters and backstories. Rooney Mara is Ona, pregnant, but still radiating love. Clare Foy is Salome, with vengeance in her heart. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, minded to stay and try to forgive, because that’s what God decrees and she doesn’t want to be damned. All of the community’s men have gone to the city to post bail for the two who have been arrested, meaning that the women have forty-eight hours to make a decision. Do they stay and forgive? Stay and fight? Or leave, and start again?
There’s an attempt here at generating tension: the forty-eight hour deadline; the possibility that the women might be too timid to either fight or leave. But, in truth, this doesn’t really work. Who could doubt that these articulate, confident women would show their mettle when it came to it, that they wouldn’t do their utmost to protect their daughters?
The conversation is fascinating, incorporating far-reaching and nuanced questions about power, education, complicity and the role of an ally. I’m engrossed in the arguments. However, I can’t pretend I wouldn’t like a bit more dramatic drive, a bit more of a traditional story arc. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if these were real testimonies – a verbatim piece would have more heft – but, as it’s fiction, I feel it’s asking a lot of an audience to sit through a film that could just as easily be a podcast or a radio play.
I’m glad that Polley has moved away from the book’s male narrator, August (Ben Whishaw), justified by Toews because women and girls in the Molotschna colony don’t learn to read or write. Given the subject matter, it seems like a no-brainer to silence him, so that he’s just the transcriber, and the story we hear is not filtered through a man’s perspective.
Despite my quibbles, there’s no doubting that these are strong, nuanced performances, imbued with dignity and pain, nor that the women talking need to be heard. It’s an important film. Just not, to my mind, an especially good one.