Film Journal 2023: Women Talking

Film Journal 2023: Women Talking
Directed by Sarah Polley

One of the most striking characteristics of Sarah Polley’s much praised adaptation of a similarly successful novel by Miriam Toews, a novel I have not read (just for context), is its narrowed scope. Based on my limited knowledge of the material I expected to find a historical epic. What I found instead is a studied and largely restrained portrait of a group of oppressed and abused women residing on a colony which is mostly contained to a spacious loft in a farmyard barn. This is about as intimate as it gets when it comes to storytelling in film, and much of the run time is given to sitting with this cast of women and listening to them converse and debate the pros and cons of leaving the men of the colony, staying and forgiving, or staying and fighting back- the three central options that lie in front of them.

These conversations become a way into the stories of these individual women, who themselves stand as a representation of a much larger cast of women who remain unseen beyond the confines of this loft. In fact, what makes this study so fascinating and powerful is the fact that all of the tension that does exist remains unseen and out of sight. We barely see the men, beyond a single young man sympathetic to their cause and willingly lending his services as a scribe and a reader. We only hear about them and experience the conflict through their dialogue. We also don’t see much in terms of potential conflict within the women either. For the most part what we find is a relatively unified group made up of different generations with slightly different perspectives and vantage points. This generational gap then becomes the visual means by which the film finds its thematic core, especially when it comes to one of its key interests- forgiveness.

What is forgivness. Should one forgive. What does it look like to forgive. These are questions that form the emotional and spiritual concern of this present point of crisis and decision, and these questions provide a powerful basis for exploring the relationship between parent and child and between the one and an inherent responsibility to the whole community. Coming to realize that none of them act alone and that no one indiviual decision can be made apart from a concern for the whole makes up the fabric of what becomes not just a story about revolution and change in a world where the womens voice has been silenced, but a powerful story about the role of faith and its relationship to hope and love. There is a moment in the film where we see this group of women, having fought through the pain and horror of the decision that lies in front of them, clapsing hands and reciting a familiar hymn. It’s one of the moments where we suddenly break away from the loft and see how the spirit of their conviction holds the power to enact very real change, and as the words of the song carry across the fields and into the far corners of the colony, it inspires us as viewers to believe and hope and love with them into a better reality.

And it should be noted, while this material is heavy stuff exploring dark realities, Polley gracefully writes these characters as ones who are not simply defined as the victim. The film us infused with beautiful moments of humor and joy and life all the same, reminding us of the privilege of simply getting to sit with these characters, not simply to listen but to know who they are in the fullness of their lives, their desires and their dreams.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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