What happens when your home no longer feels like a home? When the rules of your life no longer make sense? When your body is not your own? When your children are not safe and neither are you? Do you look for justice? Revenge? Apologies? Do you make amends to keep the peace? Or do you search for something else? Something unknown, something new?
For a crime as old as sexual assault, we still struggle to find the language to talk about it. No matter how enlightened we’re supposed to have become about these things, there is so much silence, so much shame, so much anger that just hangs in the air. Isn’t it kind of sad, in a way, that the only words we’ve collectively agreed upon are “me too?”
Sarah Polley knows the terrible truth about sexual assault and the criminal and civil justice system: That there are no perfect victims. In her book “ Run Towards the Danger ” she writes about how she watched it unravel from the sidelines, in horrified silence at the advice of friends and lawyers, as a man she alleges assaulted her when she was 16, was found not guilty. The other women who claimed assaults publicly were deemed unreliable narrators, their memories imperfect.
And so, for her extraordinary film “ Women Talking ” she approaches this societal, cultural conundrum from a different angle and in doing so makes the conversation undeniable. The women in her film have no memory of the assaults at all. What they do have are bruises, blood and babies and a trauma so deep, so intractable that they no longer feel like themselves.
This isn’t helped by their faith, and the elders in their isolated religious colony who tell them that it was ghosts or Satan who did it, that they’re lying to get attention, or that it was an act of wild female imagination. But the film begins with an indisputable reality: One of the attackers is caught and this has led to a series of events in which three generations of women have 24 hours to decide what to do before they return, demanding forgiveness. Their three options as they see it are 1) do nothing, 2) stay and fight, or 3) leave. So, they talk.
The film is an adaptation of a 2018 book by Miriam Toews, which was itself inspired by a real story out of a Mennonite community in Bolivia in which eight men were convicted of raping more than 100 women and girls. They used cow tranquilizers on their victims who had little to no memory of the incidents.
Polley’s version is expressionistic and lyrical, biting and poetic. The conversations are messy, the feminism contradictory and the trauma complicated. Among the grandmothers (Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey) there are those who have lived with these unspoken truths for so long that abandoning the end goal, the kingdom of heaven, is simply not an option. There are some who are open to a conversation and see a light. One tells allegorical stories about her horses Ruth and Cheryl.
The younger mothers are different too. Jessie Buckley’s Mariche is full of bitterness and nowhere to channel it. Claire Foy’s Salome is bubbling over with rage. Her four-year-old was assaulted and she wants to kill. Rooney Mara’s Ona, newly pregnant from an assault, is serious but romantic, looking at things as a poet might, from a kind of ivory tower she’s constructed for herself, despite the fact that none of the women have been taught to read.
The teens (Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, Michelle McLeod) giggle and act out too. No one has processed what’s happened in the same way, and the conversations are equally messy. Conversations are often interrupted. Tensions rise and are punctured, sometimes with rage, sometimes with laughter.
The men are not part of this conversation. They barely get names. And only one gets to bear witness to the proceedings, Ben Whishaw’s August, who knows the outside world, but has returned to teach the young boys at school but also out of love for Ona. I’m not sure it would be possible for his performance to be sweeter or more heartbreaking.
Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoot the story in a muted palette, not quite sepia but not quite color either, reflecting the limited world of its characters. “Women Talking” is told like a folk tale, from sometime in the future, with composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s poignantly minimalist, grassroots score, of guitars, strings, bells and cymbals, helping to save us from overwhelming despair.
“Women Talking” is not melodramatic or desperate or exploitative. It is astute and urgent and may just help those previously unable to find words or even coherent feelings for their own traumatic experiences. And hopefully it might just inspire more works of wild female imagination.
“Women Talking,” an MGM release, in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some strong language, bloody images, sexual assault, mature thematic content.” Running time: 104 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.
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