5 min read

The overwhelm

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

What follows is an act of female emancipation. Belle Tindall reviews the Oscar-winning Women Talking.
a group of women stand and sit around a table lit by a gas lamp.
Women Talking's lead characters meet together.
Universal Pictures.

A trigger-warning to our readers: this article tackles the themes of sexual and physical abuse, which, for some readers, may make this piece a particularly hard one to read.  

The title to this film could be so many things: women forgiving, women fighting, women growing, women shrinking, women believing, women doubting, women conserving, women demolishing. If you find yourself settling down to watch Sarah Polley’s masterful film, you’ll witness eight women from a Mennonite community in America do all of this, and infinitely more.  

Women Talking will be unlike any film you’ve seen before.  

In an eerily context-less setting, the women of an isolated religious community come to the traumatic realisation that they have been abused, violently and systemically, for many years. This abuse has been at the hands of the men in their radically patriarchal community: their fathers, their brothers, their uncles, their sons. Catching one of these men red-handed, the women realise that what they had long been manipulated into thinking was either their own irrational imaginations or ghostly/demonic encounters, was actually sexual abuse perpetrated by the men they had shared their entire existence with. The men they had raised. The men who had raised them.  

Based on the acclaimed novel by Miriam Toews and inspired by a harrowing true story, the Oscar-winning script offers us a front row seat to the falling apart of an entire reality as these women begin to unravel all that they know to be true.  

Do they stay and forgive the men? Do they stay and fight to the (literal) death? Or do they leave and make a new home for themselves in an outside world they know nothing of? This is the question that drives the narrative of the film as eight representatives from three different families are tasked with coming to a decision, this is the conundrum that has the women talking.  

'This film tackles a truly traumatic subject with the utmost care, it is as empathetic as it is empowering.'

With a sense of specific time and place that is only given one opportunity to interrupt the narrative (in the form of a call for the residents to be counted in the 2010 census), there is a distinct sense that this story is tragically universal in its nature. As countless critics have observed, this film tackles a truly traumatic subject with the utmost care, it is as empathetic as it is empowering. It does not minimise the atrocities that these women and girls have experienced, nor does it sensationalise them. Through the immensely talented ensemble cast, Director, Sarah Polley has curated a spectrum of raw and complex emotion - brutal honesty, righteous anger, utter despair and rebellious hope are weaved together to create a tapestry of reaction.  

The complexity and care with which this story is told is a gift to the women who inspired the film, and to the women who will watch it.  

Audiences watch as the powerful rage of Salome (played by The Crown’s Claire Foy) is countered by the defiant gentleness of Ona (Rooney Mara), while the loud terror of Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is quelled by the silent care of Melvin (a transgender character played by August Winter). And, all the while, not one reaction is judged. Every woman is given the right to her own natural response, and the right to have that response shift and stretch and adjust. The dignity and love that flows out of this conversation is somewhat of a masterclass in the beginnings of healing and the liberation that follows.    

And yet, the film has even more to offer its audiences, there’s yet another question that is written into the rock of Women Talking, one which was articulated by the director herself  -

‘What does it mean to be true to your faith? What does it mean to get rid of the structures that have sprung up around your faith, that are insidious and corrupting?’ 

It is utterly fascinating: the women are determined to rid themselves, one way or another, of the men who have hurt them so deeply, but they refuse to be separated from the God whose name has been manipulatively enacted in the process. Where we are so used to the entanglement of God and the people who wrongfully use him as a means to an awful end, these women seem to demonstrate quite the opposite. And what’s more striking is that they do so, not out of obligation or duty, but out of pure love and hope.  

When the women speak of earthly things, there is a heaviness to their voices. When they speak of God, their words feel light.  

We see them recite the Bible in moments of overwhelm, meditate on it in moments of decision-making, pray it in moments of panic, and refer to it in moments of relief. It is their faith that fuels their rebellion, it is their belief in God that informs their desire for more. A verse from the Bible is ultimately the catalyst for their decision to leave, as they choose to re-build their lives on ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable’. It seems that if the oppressors wanted these women to believe that they were inherently less than, they simply should not have introduced them to a God who tells them differently.  

One of the most powerful monologues comes from a bruised and bleeding Mariche towards the end of the film. She says,

‘We have decided that we want, that we are entitled to, three things… we want our children to be safe, we want to be steadfast in our faith, and we want to think’.

Her weighty words are responded to with tears and with a song. The sound of the women singing the words ‘nearer my God to thee, nearer to thee’ becomes the soundtrack to them packing up their lives as they leave familiarity in search of freedom, a freedom which is not intended to create distance between them and God, but to bring them nearer to each other.  

To watch faith flow from the wounded is humbling. To see the complexities between God and hurt play out in this film is captivating. It feels compellingly honest, and messy, and real

The Oscar win and the endless five star-reviews are sufficient evidence of the power of Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. But deeper evidence may also be found in the profound catharsis felt by those viewers who, in varying contexts, are trying to disentangle their faith from their hurt, or perhaps the curiosity of those who are left wondering what kind of a faith would ever be worth such an endeavour.  



4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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