Overview:

I also review Sarah Polley's latest movie, ‘Women Talking,’ which addresses related themes in a religious setting.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

“He took my voice that day.”

There are few things sadder than the way trauma can alter a person and their life’s trajectory. She Said, the film documenting The New York Times’ investigation into movie producer Harvey Weinstein, is an engrossing story of journalistic discovery. But it also does an excellent job of showing the personal toll of sexual violence.

Indeed, it opens with one of Weinstein’s many victims fleeing a violent encounter in 1992, before the main narrative unfolds in 2017. Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan, tough yet sympathetic) was understandably wary of yet another investigation into a powerful man accused of being a sexual predator. Her accounts of two Trump accusers had not swayed the election. Instead, she was bullied by the candidate himself, dragged through the mud on Fox News, and threatened by MAGA supporters.

Despite this history, she agrees to team up with fellow Times journalist Jodi Kantor (a more vulnerable Zoe Kazan). Their sorts of efforts—striving to have victims speak on the record, butting up against institutional resistance, huddling with their editors—are familiar to us from films like Spotlight. Nonetheless, it’s always mind-blowing to see how powerful people (in this case, Miramax executives, attorneys, police brass) will cover for and enable monsters.

Systemic defects similarly allow the number of victims to multiply. So-called victories through the settlement of harassment suits are effectively gag orders. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission keeps track of workplace harassment claims but won’t release the number of claims per workplace.

In recreating Twohey and Kantor’s victim interviews, we hear firsthand the effects of Weinstein’s sadism and violence. Enduring feelings of shame and personal failure. PTSD symptoms such as dissociation. Blackballing from the entertainment industry. (Three survivors portray themselves in She Said, giving these narratives an added realism and credibility.)

Based on the journalists’ book-length account of their investigation, with a screenplay from veteran writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida, Colette, Disobedience), She Said handles the victims’ accounts without feeling gratuitous. Not surprisingly, it’s tough to watch at times, especially one scene of a camera slowly rolling down an empty hotel hallway, accompanied by audiotape of Weinstein’s attempted re-assault of a previous victim.

Though she won an Emmy for her direction of the miniseries Unorthodox, Maria Schrader’s work here is not particularly distinctive. And domestic scenes meant to fill out the lives of Twohey and Kantor are hit-or-miss in the authenticity department. Still, this is a solid film worth viewing.

‘She Said’: Ending Harvey Weinstein’s reign of terror | A photograph of the movie's cast
IMDb

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect Women Talking will garner less public attention than She Said. This is unfortunate, since it’s the more artful of the two, and in its own way just as psychologically insightful.

Set in a fictional Christian commune with Amish, Mennonite, and Mormon elements, it dramatizes what happens when victimized women reclaim their voice. And despite primarily showing us—as the title informs us—women talking, it’s rather suspenseful.

The women of the colony have endured generations of physical and sexual abuse from the men. When they protest, they’re labeled as hysterical or threatened with eviction and damnation.

On a day when the men are preoccupied with business elsewhere, the women gather to debate and vote on how to resist. They quickly reject the option to do nothing, so they’re left to choose between fighting back or leaving.

Women Talking boasts a stellar cast, each woman embodying different ways of responding to trauma. Frances McDormand plays Janz, physically scarred by abuse, yet advocating passivity. Jessie Buckley is Mariche, a young mom who’s displaced her anger onto everyone but her assailants. Rooney Mara portrays pregnant Ona, the colony’s everywoman, voting not only for herself but for her unborn child.

As envisioned by director Sarah Polley (Stories We Tell, Away from Her) and enacted by cinematographer Luc Montpellier, the film’s color palette of bleached earth tones fits a life drained of vivacity by subjugation. The melodic, melancholic string music by in-demand film composer Hildur Guꝺnadóttir (Tár, Joker) likewise feels right for the story’s mood and characters.

Women Talking adds to the narrative of She Said by considering the too-common situation when there’s a religious component to trauma. The characters speak of how commands to forgive morph into permission to keep abusing. The women decide that religion isn’t to blame, but instead, male abuse of power.

Letting religion off the hook will be a palatable conclusion for many viewers. However, the screenplay by Miriam Toews (from her novel of the same name) offsets this with the irony of the women singing a hymn lauding their God of refuge. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

And I don’t think we should excuse religion so easily. When I was a Christian, I saw sexual aggression go unaddressed in school, missionary, and church settings. Subjugation of women and children seems a feature not a bug in Christianity, where the holy book codifies a submissive, less educated position for women, and a dominant, abusive status for men as fathers and husbands. The rampant sexual violence within the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church suggests this message from the Good Book still rings forth loud and clear.

(Both films are now playing in theaters.)

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