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The Handmaids' Tale

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Michael Gibson/Orion Releasing

Women Talking (2022)

The subject of “Women Talking,” the phenomenal new movie from Sarah Polley which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is so bleak it’s hard to talk about. We are in Canada in 2010 – the unwelcome presence of a census truck blasting “Daydream Believer” as it drives through the rural farming community goes to necessary trouble to establish this – but we could be up to 200 years ago. The women all wear modest hand-sewn dresses, with caps over their hair. There’s no technology in their farmhouses and the men are all gone. Why are the men gone? To bail one of them out of jail. Why is he in jail? Because Salome (an outstanding Claire Foy) attacked him with a scythe and he was arrested for his own protection. And why did meek farmwife Salome attack a man with a scythe? Because all the female members of the community were, over months, repeatedly dosed with animal tranquilizer (a knockout spray) and while unconscious raped by the men of the community. All of the female members of the community. All of them. Including Salome, and Salome’s four year old daughter.

As narrated by Autje (Kate Hallett), a smart girl in her early teens who rues that she’ll never get to go to college, the absence of the men has given the women a unique but brief opportunity to decide something for themselves. That’s to say, now they know what was done to them, what are they going to do about it? A vote is taken – as none of the women can read or write, they mark an “x” – which ties between “leave” and “stay and fight.” To simplify the process, women from three families are chosen to decide for everyone; they have 24 hours before the men return.

One of the women, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, who also produced, and who clearly took her role in order to secure financing and distribution), refuses to even discuss leaving the community, as it’s an act that will result in immediate excommunication. This is not a light threat – their faith is at the core of their lives. That’s in spite of the fact that here women are such second-class citizens that, as Salome’s mother Agata (Judith Ivey) explains, she has never asked a man for anything, not so much as opening a curtain. Not her sons, not her brothers and certainly never her husband. Women in this place are acted upon; their thoughts and opinions matter so little they may as well not exist. This conversation is almost the first time any of them have been allowed to openly speak their minds.

But while they may be uneducated, these women sitting on a circle of hay bales in a barn loft are certainly not stupid. They are clever, earnestly eager to do the right thing, and above all determined to abide to the rules of their faith. Mejal (Michelle McLeod) has taken up smoking, which irritates her sister Mariche (Jessie Buckley), whose violent husband, also Autje’s father, frightens all the other women. Their mother Greta (Sheila McCarthy) keeps bringing up her horses, Ruth and Cheryl (!!!), as a fount of anecdotes which serve as advice. Agata’s other daughter Ona (a radiant and dimpled Rooney Mara) is pregnant as the result of the rapes, and therefore under some pressure to marry August (Ben Whishaw, who rarely works outside of Britain, but is certainly the most feminist actor working anywhere), the schoolteacher (for the boys only) who recently returned to the community after a period of excommunication. He is the only adult man who was not involved in the violence, and is therefore, at the women’s request, minuting the discussion to ensure it is accurately recorded for the future.

In the corner are two older girls, Autje and Nietje (Liv McNeil), friends so close they braid their hair together, who were responsible for catching the man Salome attacked and therefore uncovering the full horror of their situation. Outside the hayloft are the women’s many other children, playing in the fields under the excellent care of Melvin (August Winter), who used to be Nettie until she miscarried her brother’s baby, became selectively mute, and began wearing men’s clothes along with her new name.

What happened to all of them is unavoidable, so with forthright bravery they do not avoid it. The violence they endured is part of their lives now, like the weather, the household chores, or Ona’s swelling belly. They were treated like animals but they’re not animals, and asserting their selfhood is the only question that matters. But how. At one point, Autje announces she can’t stand it and flings herself from the third-story hayloft doors; the women scream until they realize there’s a hayrick underneath and Autje is grinning up at them. But some of their friends in the community have killed themselves rather than face what’s been done to their bodies and those of their children. Mariche is so weary from her husband’s abuse she’s no longer sure any action of her own matters, and Ms. Buckley does a wonderful job of showing how a personality under relentless assault can curdle and fester. Ona is so happy about her impending motherhood she can’t find it in herself to be angry with her rapist, but Ms. Mara makes sure that Ona’s calm self-knowledge avoids cliché. And Salome is so angry about what’s been done to her daughter she is willing to go to hell itself if that secures justice; Ms. Foy really is wonderful as a woman who’s been overtaken by an all-consuming anger, and who knows she must find an appropriate outlet for her rage or explode.

So, after all this violence, which has left them bruised, sick, infected, pregnant, or worse, what is to be done? If they stay, what would fighting look like – would it look like Salome with her scythe, or the forgiveness Ona finds herself drawn toward? Someone suggests they ask the men to leave, which causes them all to laugh so hard some of them cry. If they go, and are banished from their faith, would that mean their faith is lost? It is not possible to understate the importance of their faith to them. It’s why they live in this remote place (which none of the women know how to find on a map) under these harsh conditions (Salome had to walk for a day and a half, carrying her daughter on her back, to get her some antibiotics) in obedience to the elders of the community. Their belief in pacifism and the literal word of the Bible is their north star. When the little daughter comes in crying all the women softly sing her a hymn for a lullaby. But when Mariche’s little boy comes up with a cherry pit stuck in his nose it’s a sign the men – and the danger – has returned.

So that’s a thousand words on what “Women Talking” is about, but how does it look? Ms. Polley’s calm, measured direction is focused on the ordinary life that must still continue under all this horror. It’s not surprising Luc Montpellier’s shots of the scenery, the kids playing on the farms and women squinting into the sun are reminiscent of Terence Mallick, someone else capable of wrestling with the evil that can openly flourish in the middle of nowhere. But every choice the movie makes downplays the sensationalism of the women’s experiences; even the wonderful Mr. Whishaw is deliberately sidelined. Ms. Polley adapted the novel by Miriam Toews herself; the unusual names take some getting used to, but careful casting and excellent acting makes it easy to tell everyone apart. It’s also under the new Orion Pictures umbrella – that’s the production company which famously crashed and burned in the mid-’90s after winning a ton of awards, but which has recently been relaunched specifically for titles by underrepresented filmmakers. It’s a huge vote of confidence in what some would consider a smaller subject, but there is nothing more interesting than people figuring out how to be who they are, and nothing more high-stakes than the victim of a crime figuring out the best way to get justice.

All these women are determined to be true to themselves and take full advantage of this, their only chance, to do so. The opening, overhead shot is of a young woman in a nightgown in bed – the sheets of which are made from the same fabric as the nightgown. But there’s definitely a person in there, even if that person’s personhood is abused, violated, kept in ignorance and betrayed. The very talky setting will no doubt bore audiences more used to melodramatic drama. But this thoughtfully righteous movie has been carefully made to match its subject, and it’s wonderful to see it assert itself on the big screen.

The final horror? It’s based on a true story.


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