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Film Review: Women Talking
Toward the end of the movie “Women Talking,” one of the characters says she has thought about one of the questions they’ve been mulling over for the past two days: “What do we want?” In other words, what are the women entitled to? Her conclusion is something along the lines of, “We are entitled to have our children be safe. We are entitled to our faith. We are entitled to think.”
We are entitled to think.
In reading up on Miriam Toews, the author of the book on which the film is based, I learned she comes from a Mennonite background. I also learned that the women of the Mennonite Church have historically had zero — yes, zero — education. They don't read or write. And, in some cases, they do not have any idea of where they live or know anything about what goes on outside their own small plot of land.
My mind wandered to Afghan women, who before we invaded their country 22 years ago, were hidden behind veils of obscurity, where they lived lives dictated by the males around them. After the United States' invasion, those cloaks were lifted and they took their rightful place in society - in schools and as decision makers for their communities. We left and now they are back behind veils. Imagine finally getting your right to think, and then having it taken away twenty-five years later? The male members of society — who, in my angry opinion, cannot be lumped in with females ever again — need to ask themselves how and why they became so afraid of us that they want to keep women at a disadvantage, even to their own detriment. By taking away a woman's right to think, conversations around a dinner table have no value. Help with the decisions the family needs made is absent. Everyone's life is less than.
“Women Talking” is not a movie made for the sake of entertainment. I didn’t find it entertaining, but I do find its message urgent. Important. LIfe changing. It gives you all the tools you need to deal with those parts of yourself that disagree on where you should go next in life and how you can handle cognitive dissonance and still be able to make decisions. It teaches you how to listen to and appreciate opinions that are opposite your own. It teaches you respect, forgiveness for angry outbursts, discipline, and the power of faith. It's a 'how to' in learning the complicated navigation of being part of a community; one that has evil in it which is out of your control.
Watching the movie in a theater in Portland, Maine, I had to strain to hear the dialogue. My hearing is not what it used to be, and the theater is an old one, but I had a feeling it was as the director intended. When you have to strain to hear, you listen better. The words matter more. I gave the film my full attention, and doing so made all the difference.
I noticed that the actors, who I will gush over later, also listened. Listening on screen, while the camera has you as its only focus, is a tool that assists the viewer in hearing what is being said. I think it's an art, and every actor in this film, did it brilliantly.
Without the incredible cinematography, Women Talking doesn't work. We need the brilliance of nature, and the young girls and boys playing in it, to understand that life can be very simple and stunningly beautiful if we don’t tune it out with earbuds and visual distractions. To support the nuances of the women’s natural surroundings, Sarah Polley, the director, includes the track “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees. It does not serve as background music. It intrudes into the quiet space that was created to whisper the plot. This is a technique that Polley uses with her inclusion of “Video Killed the Radio Star” in “Take This Waltz” and “Skinny Love” in “Stories We Tell.” It works. Very well.
I can't single out any of the acting performances in “Women Talking,” because if ever there was a brilliant use of an entire cast to give you a singular point of view, this is it. It is the strongest use of an ensemble cast I've ever seen on the screen. All of the cast members in this remarkable film gave deep, nuanced performances, often muted, to offer an experience that is rarely available for such a small investment of one hour and forty-four minutes. They did it together, no one taking center stage.
During my attendance at the inaugural Bentonville Film Festival, which Geena Davis founded as a platform for promoting women’s issues in film, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion. Some highly acclaimed actresses performed a script reading in which they took on the male characters’ roles, and made them female, and demonstrated that this could be done convincingly. It showed that one could reverse women’s and men’s roles without it sounding absurd. It was quite a moment for the audience members. I have thought of it often as I’ve observed many roles that could have easily been played by women be given instead to men. Meanwhile, the women are often relegated to the stereotypical roles of girlfriends, wives, or assistants.
“Women Talking” consists almost entirely of women’s perspectives. Not a single one of the roles could be performed by a man. Not one. The characters are uniquely women, possessing the traits that make us excel at what we bring to any table at which we are allowed to sit.
In the current divisive climate, our political perspectives have become firmly entrenched. I believe those who follow MAGA do not share my moral compass, and the country is worse for it. In other words, I am certain that my judgment of those on the other side of the aisle is accurate. If for no other reason than this, go see the movie “Women Talking.” It will provide you with the opportunity to understand and accept a perspective that differs from your own core values. It allows you to develop empathy for where others are coming from, without necessitating a change in your own beliefs. In this way, it does not need to be a threatening experience.
I went to the small theater early on a weekday to see the film. All of the theater’s patrons were women, perhaps 15 of them in total. Since they were scattered about the theater, it appeared to me they did not know one another. As the credits rolled, one of the women stood up, looked around at the rest of us, and asked, “What did you think?” I listened to their excitement about the idea that women can congregate and create action-oriented answers to problems that face us all. It was a moment I’d never had before in a movie theater. Ah, the power of women when we come together!
While “Women Talking” undoubtedly deserves a place among the Best Film nominees at the Academy Awards, I believe it has about the same likelihood of winning as my daughter's 20-year-old pony, Just a Breeze, would have had if she had competed against Secretariat in any of the Triple Crown races. But it’s a contender. And because it is, even those who may not have considered it a “must watch” have now seen it or will see it. And that’s enough for right now.
See this film with your family. And, if they aren't old enough, make sure you remember it when they are so you can have the kind of conversation that changes the way people speak to each other and digest that which is tough to hear. I'm a better person for having seen this film. I can't imagine a stronger review.