Review
Culture
5 min read

The overwhelm

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.  

 

 

Column
Character
Culture
Economics
4 min read

This revolting rich list is a freak show

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle?

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A collage of famous, rich, people such as King Charles, Elton John and others.
The Sunday Times.

General elections are no longer a clear choice between socialism and capitalism, but we should still be as offended by the privilege of the few over the poverty of many. That’s only natural, whether we’re informed by envy, a secular sense of fairness or a religious faith.

The yawning chasm between rich and poor in the UK is offensive. When PM Rishi Sunak was drenched in his vale of tears this week outside Number 10, as he announced the general election, he was seeking a mandate to preside over this inequality, in which he so richly participates.

He stood there exactly three days after he and his wife waved from the pages of the Sunday Times Rich List, based on the newspaper’s “conservative estimates of the minimum wealth of Britain’s 350 richest people.”

The Sunaks stood at 245th on the list with a measly £651m. Just 20 years ago, when I was in business, that figure would have put them near the top. Some of my business contemporaries had even made the Rich List with just a few tens of millions.

Not anymore. Mere multimillionaires barely make the cut. The ever-widening gulf between the super-rich and the rest of us means that the top 165 of last Sunday’s list of 300 are now billionaires, compared with just 20 a quarter of a century ago, while the “bottom” of today’s heap struggle by as half-billionaires. 

It does make you wonder what the Sunday Times is doing with this revolting annual survey. It has become such an anachronism since it started in the Eighties, when greed was good and we worshipped Croesus impersonators.  

Every year, we’re invited to press our noses up against their plate-glass window and drool at a world that’s as alien as a pharaoh’s to the slaves building their pyramid. What do they want from us for this display of greed? Envy?   

Times (even on Sunday) have changed and the Rich List satirises itself. Look at the ads that support it. There’s one for a 122-metre yacht that can be chartered for three million euros a week. A few pages later there’s one for a Swiss clinic “for the treatment of mental health and issues of substance and behavioural dependency”. Could these ads be related?  

So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

The Rich List is just for the British mega-rich. So no room here for Meta-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg or space-wingnut Elon Musk. But it’s nice to see at the top of the list, with just a couple of hundred million over the £37bn-mark, the Hinduja family, whose leading lights so publicly acquired British passports some years ago, with or without government help.  

And here’s Lakshmi Mittal (No. 8 with £15bn), who was recently accused of profiting from both sides of the Ukraine conflict, after a part-owned Indian company bought nearly £2.4bn of Russian oil since the start of the war. Which newspaper revealed this? Step forward the Sunday Times.  

And there’s vacuum magnate Sir James Dyson (No. 5 with £21bn) who backed Brexit and then moved his global HQ to Singapore. That’s the beauty of being so rich; you can escape the consequences of your own actions. 

Most of the list is what similarly might be called colourful. These cannot, by virtue of their economic separation, be normal people. So what the Sunday Times is presenting is a kind of freak show. Roll up, roll up, see the people who are tax exiles from the planet. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. 

What are we to make of this quite nauseating spectacle? Sure. there is no virtue in poverty. But nor should there be a prosperity gospel, which holds that the righteous are financially rewarded, other than in the outer reaches of an American charismatic movement. 

Among the things that make us go “hmm” in this report is the attitude to life. Phones 4u founder John Caudwell (No. 109, £1.5bn) says “If I stopped I’d probably be desperately unhappy.” Hmm. New entrant to the list Graham King (No. 221=, £750m) made his fortune from public money contracts for accommodation for asylum seekers that inspectors have described as “decrepit” and is currently the subject of charges under the Housing Act 2004. Hmm. 

Cursed are the rich, for they shall lose touch with reality. That’s not a heretical rewrite of the Sermon on the Mount, with its “Blessed are...” Beatitudes. There are actually four lesser known woes in the Gospel of Luke: 

 “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” 

These woes aren’t about revenge. But they do speak to the consequences of extreme wealth – such as profiteering from desperately vulnerable people or working so hard you can’t think properly. 

Money is its own reward. But ultimately its power is empty. Today, the Sunday Times should be as ashamed of idolising it as those it lionises for making so much of it.