Women Talking Four stars Now showing; Cert 15A
Well it does what it says on the tin, that much is for sure.
This drama from the great Canadian director Sarah Polley comprises for the most part female characters sitting, contemplating and debating in a range of temperatures, almost always in the confines of a barn. You’ll wonder are you watching a live stream of a Broadway play, such is the stagey rhythms of the dialogue and its chamber-like setting.
In truth, Women Talking is a morality tale set in a secluded Mennonite community in North America, the kind that adhere to a devout agrarian lifestyle. Tempers and humours rise and fall in a makeshift community hall of hay bales and wood beams, while outside vast fields of tillage stretch to the horizon. By transporting the story there from the Bolivia of Miriam Toews’s 2018 source novel, Polley gives the story a sense of invisible borders in the midst of expansive freedom.
This, it could even be said, is one of the most unusual prison break films you’ll come across. In the case of the characters here, the women are less plotting how to escape their situation as whether they should leave at all.
It’s 2010, apparently, but the story could be set anytime in the last century (the only giveaways to modern times are a reference to antibiotics and the playing of Daydream Believer by The Monkees).
We join the women in the aftermath of a co-ordinated assault on their personhoods by the male members of the commune. Using cattle tranquilliser , the group of men collectively raped the women, resulting in trauma, injury and pregnancies.
While the menfolk languish in prison, the women use the window before bail to convene and decide on three options – forgive, stay and fight, or leave. There are myriad pros and cons to thrash out for each, and so schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), one of the very few gentle and college-educated menfolk in the community – is helping to take minutes and compile lists for the largely illiterate womenfolk.
Different members present different standpoints. Ona (Rooney Mara), an idealist and expectant mother since the attack, proposes a new order after the men are confronted. The enraged Salome (Claire Foy), meanwhile, wants only for the heads of the perpetrators to roll, even if she has to do the lopping herself.
Mariche ( Jessie Buckley) urges the others to bear in mind that their religious duty is to forgive the sinners, something hard to swallow as the women and their daughters nurse wounds. Janz (Frances McDormand), scarred for life from what we assume is an attack in another time, abstains from any direct action.
This is dialogue-heavy polemic cinema, a genetic relative of 12 Angry Men or a Mennonite Glengarry Glen Ross, if you will, where blows are exchanged verbally and the cadences of a debate become a kind of torch song. It won’t be for everyone, but when all its guns are blazing, it’s impossible to look away from, especially as the grim underlay of the crime is teased out.
Polley’s screenplay compresses Toews’s novel (based on a real-life incident) into something that makes us consider injustices to women in a broader way, far beyond the county lines. Surrounded by crops and farm equipment, the idea of women kept as chattel is not lost on us.
Cinematographer Luc Montpellier’s washed out colours give the events a netherworld feel, not colourful enough to belong to this age, but more tangible than a relic from a bygone era.
A percussive score by Icelandic genius Hildur Guðnadóttir brings some of the same strange ambient shocks that she brought to Tár.
To give the all-star female cast the stripped-down, lived-in feel that it has, Polley made the ensemble go without luxuries like make-up and private trailers. Buckley and Foy are responsible for the big fireworks, while Mara and Sheila McCarthy supply more restrained registers .
Less compelling, mind, is Ben Wishaw’s August. If the brief was to exude “wet and harmless,” he pulls it off with flying colours. Meek and dutiful, August is nothing more the women’s pet man, an under-developed character who feels tacked on, perhaps as a sop to the “not all men” argument. The pining affections that he has for Ona are so puppyish and thinly composed as to seem nonsensical. A glaring misfire against such a sturdy backdrop.
Your Place or Mine
Netflix; Cert 12
I’m professionally obliged to award a bonus star to any film that features the delightful Steve Zahn in a supporting role. Alas, the Minnesota actor is wasted in this dead-on-arrival effort from screenwriter-turned-director Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Cruella).
Ashton Kutcher is Peter, a freewheeling Manhattan consultant with nice hair and a solid bank balance. His best friend is Debbie (Reese Witherspoon), a frazzled single mum who works as an accountant in Los Angeles.
She needs to be in New York for the week, and he needs a vacation, so they swap gaffs à la Nancy Meyers’s The Holiday. These bumbling buffoons then faff about in one another’s lives until... oh, you’ll figure it out for yourself.
Indeed, Your Place or Mine subscribes to the idea that it is possible to build a rom-com around characters who rarely share a scene together. It is (see Sleepless in Seattle). But Kutcher is no Tom Hanks, and Witherspoon struggles with the Meg Ryan part.
It hardly helps that McKenna’s film is neither romantic nor funny, and that our awkward, mismatched leads are hopeless at pretending to be pals, let alone soul mates. Hard pass. Chris Wasser
Selected cinemas; Cert 15A
The year is 1988, and Rosy McEwen is Jean, a young schoolteacher in the UK’s north-east who spends her weekdays teaching PE and her weekends necking pints in a smoky boozer.
Jean essentially leads a double life, and her colleagues don’t know she’s a lesbian. She’d like to keep it that way, too.
After all, Margaret Thatcher’s government will soon enact its notorious Section 28 bill – a preposterous law prohibiting the “promoting of homosexuality” in British schools. Strange times, and Jean is fortunate to have a strong network of friends, not to mention a partner (Kerrie Hayes’s Viv) who adores her. But there are obstacles – a nosy, judgemental family, for a start, and a moody student (Lucy Halliday’s Lois) who knows far too much about her teacher’s private life.
Things get complicated in this chilly yet compelling feature that works hard to capture the spirit and, indeed, anxieties of its sombre setting.
Blue Jean is a little rough around the edges, and regrettably soapy in parts, but McEwen provides a steady centre, and first-time feature director Georgia Oakley marks herself as a storyteller to watch. Seek it out. Chris Wasser
Magic Mike’s Last Dance
Now showing; Cert 16
Hen nights, rejoice – Magic Mike (Channing Tatum), the pneumatic stripping machine who we’ve watched dry-hump his way to immortality over two feature-length films, is back. With him returns director Steven Soderbergh, who along with writer Reid Carolin first brought the hugely profitable and oddly respectable stripper drama into the world in 2012.
All three men (Tatum has taken production credits for the whole trilogy) know better than to meddle with a proven formula – a bit of character development, a big musical climax, and enough six-packs to pave Grafton Street. Rarely do we see a franchise outing this fit for purpose.
Mike has moved on from whipping rooms of women into lathers. Now a barman for private parties, he is summoned by a client who has got wind of his previous life. Wealthy divorcee Maxandra (Salma Hayek) could really do with a lap dance, and duly flashes the cash. Several gyrations later she is smitten with the big stud, and insists he travel to London to help choreograph a lavish stage play she is producing.
Tatum’s physicality allows him to transcend his limitations as an actor, but Hayek steals the show. Hilary White