Surprisingly for a year when Avatar 2 is up for Best Picture, Don’t Worry Darling has been snubbed by the Academy, though it does share eerie similarities with Oscar nominee Women Talking. Both concern women trapped in a patriarchal commune, bear unfortunate resemblance to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, and neither (despite Harry Styles’ insistence) feel like a movie.
Women Talking lives up to its name by solely comprising a conversation between the women and girls of an isolated Mennonite colony. Upon discovering that the men of their community have been drugging and raping them in their sleep, the group debates whether to stay and fight, or leave the colony. What follows is “an act of female imagination” – a term reappropriated from the men who blame the attacks on the victims, ghosts and the devil. And this is no relic from pre-industrial history, but a real case from 2009.
Based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, it is a striking thing to write and a difficult task to film, fiercely discursive in its one-location debate over the two frightening options. To make the subject more cinematic, Sarah Polley employs heavily desaturated colour grading that unfortunately makes the film look cheaper than it probably was. Her smartest decision is to keep the brutality and the men (one entails the other) off screen, only glimpsing the aftermath of the attacks and keeping the focus on the agency of the women.
Not so much characters as mouthpieces for particular viewpoints, they are nonetheless formidably portrayed by Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara – plus Ben Whishaw as the token man, a clumsy inclusion who spends most of the film crying over his love for a character who clearly has other things on her plate.
Someone even says “Not all men” in case the story’s relevance to wider society is lost on anyone, and the cult invokes cancel culture in discussing the line between forgiveness and permission. These are important themes but the group has to wrap up before the men get back, which stops them from getting deep into any specific idea. Instead the conversations are circuitous to the point that you can miss parts of the film without actually missing much, with little in the way of revelation to guide the drama.
It ends up in the same category not as Avatar 2 but Denial, the 2017 courtroom drama about the Holocaust denier David Irving – not a great movie so much as a vital play, except filmed to get more people talking. And who could argue with that?