Courtesy of Orion Pictures

February 6, 2023

‘Women Talking’ Refuses to Commit to Its Own Premise

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Trigger Warning: This Review includes Extensive Discussions of Sexual Violence and Rape

In a twist shocking to absolutely no one, much of the writing surrounding Women Talking has involved negative regressive accusations of wokeism and trauma dumping on one hand, and vague liberal fawning of praise on the other. Seemingly designed to invoke a discourse about nothing in particular, Women Talking is the film, based on the book, based on the true story of what the opening text describes as “an act of female imagination.” The act, a radical response of an Amish community’s women to a culture enabling constant sexual assault and subsequent gaslighting, is one which seems so straightforward to make controversy impossible and, as such, becomes the perfect vehicle for reactionary takes. Unfortunately for the film, it ends up seeming to anticipate potential criticism and feels like it works overtime to produce palatability at the expense of quality. What emerges is Women Talking, a film so seemingly wavering on its own premise that it fails to draw out anything more than momentary emotional reaction and obligatory applause.

Much of the difficulty in discussing Women Talking emerges in the fact that many of the emotional beats are fairly effective. Sarah Polley directs the film in a fairly stylish and attention-grabbing way. She cross-cuts into and out of subplots and leverages an excellent score to better engage the audience in a film which otherwise would be criticized for its stuffy, play-like nature. Yet, it’s precisely because of its constant efforts to entertain that Women Talking loses much of its quality. For a film called Women Talking, Polley’s direction refrains from presenting too much of the title act, vying instead to maximize conventional storytelling beats and consequently emphasize watchability. Thus, what emerges is a film that doesn’t ever really grapple with its guiding principle. It never ultimately descends into effect philosophical discourse because of its insistence upon plottyness, and it never fully grounds the film in the barn so as to honestly depict its central confrontation. In buying a film that is watchable and entertaining, Women Talking sells any aspirations towards an interesting ideological center. 

The film certainly does more to center authentic women’s voices and authentic women’s stories than any entry in the rape revenge film subgenre, but it dredges up the same conclusory issue as many of those do. A triumphant ending, whether in violence or in liberation, still ultimately suggests an unpleasant dismissal of the reality that there is nothing unambiguously good to come out of something so horrible. From the opening text to Hildur Guðnadóttir’s optimistic score, there remains the uncomfortable implication here that, regardless of all the awful events underpinning the film, the story itself should make us feel good. While it may be too much to ask for an Oscar-vying film to suggest the possibility that neither justice nor liberation is a legitimate outgrowth of sexual violence or proto-fascism, the absence of cynicism produces a far more sinister notion. When presented with a wholly bright-eyed conclusion, where evil (regardless of how earnestly that evil is presented) facilitates the emergence of good (and hardly anything but good), the film produces the indication of evil as a necessary productive condition for good. Making the film an “act of female imagination” suggests a causal relationship between that imagination and the preceding trauma, an unsettling idea treated rather inexplicably as an avenue for populism. 

Not all of Women Talking’s filmmaking works on its own terms, either. In its attempts to serve simultaneously as a plotted story of heroic women and a philosophical discourse, it generates characters who speak with the combined experience of uneducated and perpetually gaslit Amish women and the intellectual ammunition of Ivy League students. Using the faulty allegory dredges up more interesting questions than would an honest depiction of the former, but also makes the film suffer from its own nonsensical construction. Similarly, there’s even an equivocation on the purportedly radical message of the film. As the women at one point express their ire at their oppressors as “men did this,” one character dismisses with the thought “not all men,” as the camera cuts to Ben Whishaw (its allied poster child) as if in agreement. Radical messaging is dismissed in an instant through an unintentionally hilarious moment which, aside from reading like an idiotic studio note, feels out of place even with the limited project of the film. 

Polley’s film looks drab and gray so as to present a visual ugliness to match with the thematic ugliness of the film. The washed out colors, though, simply make each shot unpleasant to watch, and, lacking any other indications of disgust, feel out of place in a film that’s otherwise asking to be enjoyed. Without any interest in supporting such ugliness through either plot or emotional beats, we’re left with a feel-good movie that simply looks ugly.

Women Talking is a film which feels much in conversation with Schindler’s List (though perhaps not quite so expertly directed). Schindler’s List centers a Nazi who saved Jews, rendering the horrors of the Holocaust watchable through the aberrant heroism of one who defied it. Women Talking doesn’t center the men (save Ben Whishaw), but it still strains to give its audience contentment in the otherwise intolerable evil of rape. In both cases the stories present the miniscule “at least” rather than honestly baring the overwhelming majority which remains inexplicably horrifying. Maybe there exists a place for films which are interested in the “single drop at the bottom of the glass” perspective, but that place should hardly be the Academy Awards, particularly when the film is treated as a replacement for the honest depiction of a glass that is, for all intents and purposes, empty.  

This is the second article in a series covering each of the Best Picture Oscar Nominees.

Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].