Content warning: This article includes mentions of sexual assaults that occur in the movie “Women Talking.”
“Women Talking” presents a very self-explanatory title. Most of the film is just that — women talking. But that is not to trivialize what exactly they are talking about. The women are all members of an isolated Mennonite colony in 2010 — though they could just as easily be living in 1810, given their complete lack of technology and modern conveniences. Aside from a brief scene where someone from the Census Bureau comes to survey the colony, there are no signs of a world outside their own. Central to the plot is the women’s discovery that some of the men of the colony have been using cow tranquilizer as an anesthetic in order to rape them. Those charged have been sent to a jail in a nearby town, with the remaining men joining them to handle the bail.
This leaves the women by themselves to ponder a single question: Should they leave the colony altogether? A vote is held to consider three options: stay and do nothing, stay and fight or simply leave. The vote results in a tie, with the women split between leaving or staying and fighting. After the vote, eleven of the women of the colony convene in a barn to have a more in-depth discussion of the matter. Joining them is August (Ben Whishaw), a noble schoolteacher and one of the only two men not implicated in the crimes of the colony’s other men. He is there to transcribe the events of the meeting, as none of the women are allowed to learn how to read and write. Ona (Rooney Mara), who is pregnant as the result of a rape, believes that if they stay, fight and win, they could rewrite the rules and create an equal society, but Mariche (Jessie Buckley) believes the only way to move forward is through forgiveness. When this decision causes further disagreement amongst the group, August drafts a list of the pros and cons of leaving at Ona’s encouragement.
Behind the choice the women face is a compelling exploration of a crisis of faith. These women are all deeply religious individuals and wholeheartedly believe in the doctrines of their colony, and yet men who take part in the very same doctrines are committing unspeakable acts. For the first time, they are now reckoning with ideas they have been told for too long not to question.
But while the film is structured around an interesting concept with important and complex themes, there is nothing stylistically done to let any of that pop. The film is shot entirely with a muted gray color palette which, while executed well in the context of what the film was trying to achieve, is ultimately unpleasing to the eye. The screenplay, which is also good by all technical standards, is overwritten to oblivion; the film’s lack of subtext ensures that the audience never has to grapple with what is placed in front of them. The film demonstrates why the old adage of “show, don’t tell” is important. And the film does not have much more than its screenplay to rely on. Through its dialogue-reliant script and static staging, it feels more like a play on film instead of a full-fledged movie. There would be minimal difference if “Women Talking” was viewed entirely with your eyes closed, just listening to the audio.
The film has a powerhouse cast, including actors Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and a brief appearance by Frances McDormand. But their performances fall victim to the same crime as the screenplay — an excruciating lack of subtlety.
“Women Talking” is certainly not a bad film. It offers a glimpse into a world that seems so foreign and detached and yet still exists to this day. If you watch the movie exclusively as a work of semi-fictional cultural anthropology, there is plenty to like. But as a complete cinematic experience, it falls short. In the end, “Women Talking” tries so hard to make something audiences would deem “important” that it forgets to make a movie that feels complete.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a junior from Los Angeles, California studying Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.