‘Women Talking’: a boring, pseudo-feminist gabfest; ‘We Are Still Here’: a tame, dull anthology film about indigenous mistreatment

Blah blah blah: The cast of ‘Women Talking’ discuss their future in a throwback colony.

WOMEN TALKING 1/2 (104 minutes) M
Those hungry for a hearty slice of intelligent, progressive, provocative feminist cinema with a compelling story and searing performances driving a thoroughly captivating drama that explores a range of important issues should give Women Talking as wide a berth as possible.

In a mysterious throwback colony that lives as if it’s the 1800s, though it’s actually modern day (very Amish-like) there’s been a violent attack on the women by some of the colony’s bad men who have decided – for reasons unexplained – to suddenly go on a rape spree.

So the women gather in the barn and discuss their three options: to do nothing; to stay and fight; or to leave. They exchange thoughts, ideas and barbs in the barn – and that’s it. That’s the movie.

At the very point where you realize the film is a dud and is not going to go anywhere, that it’s just a gas-bagging yapfest that sounds like an open-mic reading from the Angry Feminist’s Handbook, one kid quips to a friend: “This is very, very boring.” You said it, kid. There’s your review of the film, folks.

Based on the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews, writer/director Sarah Polley (Away From Her) opts for a stagey, o monochrome look (with small shades of colour) and an interminable pace that makes you wish one of the women would suddenly pull an M4 5.56mm Carbine out of the straw and say: “Enough talk. Let’s go smoke these f—-rs.”

Not even the strong cast – Frances McDormand (also a producer); Claire Foy; Rooney Mara; Jessie Buckley – can enliven the proceedings.

As for substance, there ain’t any. The women go on and on about the patriarchy and how men are inherently violent and how they must rise as one empowered force and reclaim their identity in the world, even though they’re so voluntarily out of touch they don’t know what the world actually looks like.

So what are they doing in this colony? What’s the upside to this lifestyle, other than that they don’t have Google? They know there’s an enlightened, modern world out there with electricity and flush toilets and laws against men who rape.

So what’s the motive for their bizarre choice of lifestyle? Is this a thinly veiled parody? And what is the ultimate message of the film? Should you manage to sit through this pseudo-feminist tripe without losing consciousness, try and make sense of it.

What a stupid movie this is. As for the introductory caption declaring how the story is a work of the “female imagination”, it might have been better to leave that out.

There are many ways to effectively advance a feminist agenda through cinema. Boring the life out of people so intensely their brains begin leaking out their noses is not one of them.

As for the critical acclaim the film has received – go figure. Was everybody else shown a different cut? One with the M4 carbine?

Give it here, son: a scene from the Australian-New Zealand anthology film ‘We Are Still Here’.

WE ARE STILL HERE ** (90 minutes) M
In principle the concept behind We Are Still Here is quite enticing: a collection of short stories from Australia and New Zealand dealing with indigenous disenfranchisement, oppression, mistreatment and the dread of colonization.

Topical, timely, the type of film we should see more of. Sounds great.

Unfortunately, the enterprise doesn’t fly owing chiefly to a grand lack of daring. It’s too safe, too one-sided, too anodyne, both politically and dramatically.

Cross-cutting between each story to create the illusion of a cohesive anthology, the drag on We Are Still Here is that it operates within well-established tropes: battles with the colonialists; Australia Day protests; clashes with white supremacists; police harassment; abuse from prison guards; and, as is apparently mandatory, major dissing of Captain Cook, though the film never ventures to detail why the poor sod is considered such a super-villain.

Indeed, in one of the film’s two stories set present-day, the vandalism of Captain Cook’s cottage is portrayed as a worthwhile endeavour. Bad move. Self-righteousness never plays well, especially when straining to make political points.

That most of the film’s stories are set in the past – one rather dull sequence is set in a post-apocalyptic far future – is a very easy move as it side-steps the many tough issues assailing indigenous folk today.

Yet even the contemporary stories drop the ball.

Example: In Alice Springs an indigenous gent repeatedly tries buying some alcohol but is harassed by the same cop who demands to see his ID.

There’s no payoff to this yarn, or any explanation as to why the gent would take such abuse. He doesn’t even demand a refund when his purchases are taken from him and returned to the shop. Shouldn’t he at least get store credit?

On the upside, there’s a beautifully animated story that evokes the tension between traditional and modern life, while the film’s highlight is set in the trenches of Gallipoli in 1915 where a lone soldier tries figuring out what is going on in the enemy trench a few metres away. Lovely stuff.

Overall, however, the film is a haphazard mosaic that falls flat. There’s nothing revelatory or confronting here, nothing to challenge established perceptions or prejudices or – dare one say – stereotypes of white people, including sea-faring cartographers.

Consequently, sad to say, We Are Still Here is neither very interesting nor engaging. It’s basically a dog whistle aimed at a partisan audience that holds Australia Day to be Invasion Day, with any differing opinions automatically deemed invalid.

The film does bring to mind the Oscar-winning 2004 Paul Haggis film Crash, which assembled a clutch of stories dealing with racism and prejudice in Los Angeles, brilliantly interweaving them into a powerful portrait of the racial and class divides that criss-cross America.

We’re still waiting for the local version of that.