The Washington Post
‘Women Talking’ is the escapist film the world needs
Last year, audiences flocked to “Top Gun: Maverick,” the top-grossing Academy Award nominee for best picture, I assume because they were seeking pure escapist fantasy. You know the genre: barely credible premise, reality-defying events, a resolution that opts for wish fulfillment rather than plausibility.
“Top Gun: Mav” delivers all that, pushing emotional buttons and flicking narrative levers in a tightly prescribed sequence, a pilot in a cockpit of Hollywood tropes.
But if you want to go rogue, I recommend another escapist fantasy: “Women Talking.”
Yes, that “Women Talking” — the best picture nominee directed by Sarah Polley, which on Sunday won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay — about a group of women trapped, and brutally victimized, by an oppressive, patriarchal culture.
Like the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews from which it is adapted, the film is inspired by a horrifying true story. In Manitoba Colony, an ultraconservative religious community in Bolivia, more than 150 women and girls were drugged and raped in the night for years before discovering, in 2009, that they had been preyed on not by demons, as they had been led to believe, or by their “wild female imagination,” but by men of the colony armed with a cow tranquilizer and a culture of silence.
The film’s action begins after the rapists have been arrested. While the men of the colony (save the schoolteacher) are absent, bailing out the accused, a group of women meets secretly in a hayloft to decide what to do. Should they forgive the men and go on as before? Should they “stay and fight” — try to change the colony’s culture? Or should they leave?
Polley doesn’t identify the colony or specify the location; we learn it’s 2010 from an announcement blaring from speakers on a pickup truck. But the lightflecked hayloft, the horse-drawn buggies, the braided hair and plain dresses clearly refer to the Mennonites and the shocking case that made the news more than a decade ago. Polley, her cinematographer and her incredible cast make it feel real. And yet, it can’t be.
That’s what I kept protesting in my head, at first. In a culture so oppressive that victims were afraid to tell anyone they were attacked, could they be so bold as to plot their response? In a culture so patriarchal that women are never taught to read and write, would they have the language to discuss the nature of forgiveness, complicity, power and pacifism?
In real life, they would be more fearful. In real life, they would be more frantic. In real life, they would be doing their chores instead of debating whether men can be blamed for treating women badly, when that’s exactly what the men were raised to do.
This isn’t reality, though, as Polley takes pains to point out. A title card early in the film reads: “What follows is an act of female imagination.” The narrator tells us the attacks made it feel as if “we had no invitation anymore to be a part of the real.” Later, when one character is accused of being a dreamer, she responds: “We are women without a voice. . . . All we have are our dreams, so of course we’re dreamers.” The one song we hear that isn’t a hymn comes from the radio of a truck: “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees.
It’s all a dream — not the sleeping kind, but the kind people have on behalf of other people who are not free.
The strictures and conditions that allowed the women of Manitoba Colony to be assaulted are the same ones that would render the earnest discussion and collective action of “Women Talking” as plausible as . . . “Top Gun: Maverick.”
“TG:M” posits a valiant bombing mission with no apparent political consequences and such a high level of difficulty that no one can possibly succeed. Yet that’s exactly what our daring band of (mostly) brothers manages to do.
“Women Talking,” it’s true, observes the rules of physics. On the face of it, nothing all that spectacular happens. People argue, wail, giggle and sing. The action rarely leaves the hayloft and never leaves the farm. No one flies upside down at impossible speeds or repels onslaughts of ammunition with a cocky grin.
The only crazy, unbelievable plot turn is this: A group of illiterate and isolated women finds the words and the courage to resist the oppressive patriarchal authority that has dominated them.
Come to think of it, this is much harder to believe than “Top Gun.”
A fighter pilot gets away with carelessly destroying a multimillion-dollar jet because his friend is a fleet commander? Sure, that could happen. An inveterate rule breaker is asked to mentor the next generation? Well, is he White, male and ripped beyond his years? I buy it.
But an escapist fantasy that is literally a fantasy of female escape — methodical, collective, ethical, well-provisioned and in plenty of time?
Tom Cruise’s Maverick instructs his protege, “Don’t think. Just do.”
In real life, we have plenty of that. We don’t need to dream it up. But we do need movies that help us imagine a world where, as Rooney Mara’s Ona puts it, “women would be allowed to think.” A world that for many does not yet exist.
The devastating subtext of “Women Talking” is that in real life, they stayed.