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BFI London Film Festival 2022, Dispatch #13: The Middle Ages, Women Talking, She Said

Luciana Acuna, Cleo Moguillansky, Alejo Moguillansky, The Middle Ages
Luciana Acuna, Cleo Moguillansky and Alejo Moguillansky in The Middle Ages

If the COVID-19 pandemic granted anyone anything other than misery and fear, it did so for inquisitive artists seeking new challenges, new limitations within which they could explore new artistic expressions. Such was evidently the case for Luciana Acuna and Alejo Moguillansky, whose The Middle Ages isn't just a project born out of those limitations but one explicitly characterized by them. Alas, an imperative to delve inward rather than reach outward is not one every artist needs, resulting here in an insipid, repetitive, egocentric quasi-self-portrait of artists perhaps more enamoured with their own art than their audience ever could be. Its sincerity as a project can't entirely compensate for all the unearnt navel-gazing, and it's altogether too banal and too inept to succeed as a technical exercise.

The Middle Ages has purpose, but conflicting ambitions - its every impulse seems to arise purely out of the demands of the material at that given moment, making for a restless, scattershot movie that feels much longer than it is. The theme of respect for art and for artists recurs, albeit often sardonically, but it's superficial and, perhaps, thereby only a respect for this art and for these artists, as evidenced by a number of goofs and shortcuts that suggest a lack of care and understanding of what it actually takes to create good, respectful art. It's not a total write-off, though - it's occasionally very funny (lead Cleo Moguillansky's comic timing is irreproachable), it explores and utilizes its single shooting space with subtle perceptiveness, and Alejo's a cutie. But none of that can quite redeem an otherwise dull, pointless exercise in self-aggrandizement. Never mind the pandemic - the biggest limitation imposed upon Acuna and Moguillansky was their own imaginations.

Rooney Mara, Sarah Polley, Women Talking
Rooney Mara in Women Talking

For something so clear, direct and consistent, Sarah Polley's Women Talking is impressively abundant in meaning and detail. Every last gesture, every syllable of every word has real intent behind it; not a shot is wasted, not a moment squandered. It's schematic, and unabashedly naked in its objectives, but it's neither unambitious nor obvious. Polley possesses not just compassion for her characters but the understanding of how to wield that compassion to create good, compelling art that can transfer its values onto an open, willing audience; thus it is a compassionate movie. It's also beautifully perceptive - Polley allows notions to arise in the viewer's thoughts through slight suggestion, or fleeting association, noticing connections between the most minor details and not stressing them. So it is not just a straightforward, linear story, but one of quiet, meaningful emotional and moral exploration, both for its characters and for its viewers.

I found myself torn between appreciating its characters for their vibrancy and resenting what felt uncomfortably close to pedantry in their design, then torn between whether my concern was even valid - have ideological perspectives been condensed into characters, or am I making unreasonable demands of a movie that, in its essence, is about ideologies and their impact on individuals? And even if they have, is that even a problem, or is the necessity of this approach dubious? Finally, I found myself admiring Women Talking for inspiring debate in its very depiction of debate, and for making its own demands of a predominantly male cinema landscape. It has humble trappings, but it's a deceptively ambitious work, and in quintessentially feminine (not female) ways. Its achievements are a little undone, though, by some jarring big Oscar moments, and yet another hammy turn from Claire Foy. Loved the accents, which I've read criticized as "bad American accents," but no really, do your research, these are superb accents for this milieu.

Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher, Patricia Clarkson, She Said, Maria Schrader
Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher and Patricia Clarkson in She Said

The great Hollywood reckoning with #MeToo is, alas, not that great. Above and beyond all else, before, after and throughout, She Said is exactly that: a Hollywood reckoning, slickly packaged and presented with clarity, a glossy, forthright, needlessly simplistic summation of a topic it at least has the sense to acknowledge it can't even begin to examine in its entirety. It has the tone and the editing style of a middlebrow documentary, the aesthetics of a network TV show, and the dialogue of an original high school theatre production (choice exchange: "Lisa Bloom, a lawyer, wrote to me"—"Gloria Allred's daughter?"). In distilling a subject matter so unfathomably complex down to a neat and tidy journalism procedural, the filmmakers do equal parts an honour to their noble protagonists and their groundbreaking work, and to the women who spoke out and broke the dam of silence, and an injustice to their integrity. This was, quite surely, a story this industry should never have told, much as it was also a story it was always going to tell anyway.

Within the soft and smooth-edged texture and tone, the freshly-pressed wardrobe and bouncy coiffures, there are some smart details here. Crucially, the process of professionals developing a major story is developed with insight and sensitivity - note how these journalists rarely react when given even the most shocking testimony. And, most welcomely, given its factual bases, the movie does understand psychology, recognizing the impacts of events, actions, pressures, exchanges on characters in both their past and their present. And, eventually, it amasses genuine power, bolstered, naturally, by the viewer's knowledge of the momentousness of the work depicted herein. Carey Mulligan's natural spontaneity as a performer cuts through all the slickness, but the real stars here are Patricia Clarkson's statement necklaces. But that shouldn't be the case in this movie. It's all detail, all the time, everything so controlled and contained it scarcely resembles reality at times, and that's a real problem for a movie that's evidently supposed to recreate reality.


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