Writer-director Sarah Polley has worked to wide acclaim in both documentary (Stories We Tell) and narrative film (Away from Her, Take This Waltz), so it’s fitting that her Women Talking falls somewhere between reality and allegory. Adapted from Miriam Toews’ novel (which was itself inspired by horrific real-life events), this drama explores the aftermath of sexual violence visited upon the women and girls of an isolated religious community. Though the novel is set among Mennonites— Toews grew up as one herself — Polley’s adaptation intentionally doesn’t specify what religion the colony is. These choices make it easier to layer one’s own experiences on top of what we witness in Women Talking; though specific atrocities are committed in this small community, the trauma feels terribly universal. Wherever there are systems of power that entrench men at the top, the vulnerable will be exploited, but Women Talking offers hope for something better.
Despite widespread occurrence in the real world (or perhaps because of it), the sexual assaults in Women Talking still elicit gasps. A 2010 census taker appears in the film, setting this in the recent past, but depressingly this could really be anytime in history, a realization amplified by the juxtaposition of the women’s plain, hand-sewn clothing and the occasional insertion of modern technology in the background.
In opening scenes that quickly establish the scenario, women and girls of all ages wake up alone, covered in blood and bruises. They’re told that they are being attacked by demons, and they begin to question their own experiences and perception. However, one rapist’s face is seen, and it’s clear that the perpetrators are human — and fellow members of the community. He names other men who have raped women, and they’re turned into outside authorities at the closest town. This isn’t for the cause of justice; it’s to protect them from the righteous anger of their victims who come at them with a vengeance.
The women are told that when the men return, they must offer their forgiveness if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven. While the men in the colony are away in town for 24 hours, the women left behind must decide: do they do nothing, stay and fight, or leave? Three generations of two families spend the evening in a hayloft, discussing the pros and cons of their options and sharing their thoughts on what they will do next.
Light and color — or lack thereof — play a key role in the film’s visuals. WIth only about a day to debate their decision, the gradually waning daylight serves as a countdown for the women. Frequent Polley collaborator Luc Montpellier captures the change in light amidst a desaturated palette; there’s some color present, especially in the women’s dresses, but its monochrome look isn’t far from black and white in some scenes.
After Away from Her and Take This Waltz, Polley continues to offer an empathetic portrait of complicated women in this film, refusing to cast judgment on their decisions.The characters in Women Talking are sharply drawn, at once fully human and archetypes of how people respond in these situations. In one family, Salome (Claire Foy) rages, eager to extract an eye for an eye, while her older sister, Ona (Rooney Mara), is full of quiet determination to protect herself and those she loves. Their mother Greta (Sheila McCarthy) reveals heartbreaking vulnerability, though she also advocates for fighting back.
In the other family, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is embittered and brittle, and her younger sister Mejal (Michelle McLeod) has taken up smoking and screaming into the void as a defense. Their mother and matriarch Agata (Judith Ivey) offers measured wisdom. The teenage girls in each family, Autje (Kate Hallett) and Neitje (Liv McNeil), cling to each other and crack jokes to cut the tension. The only man present is gentle August (Ben Whishaw, exuding a kindness and basic goodness on level with his portrayal of Paddington), who takes the minutes, because none of the women can read or write, to keep a record of what is said. Meanwhile, outside the barn, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, also a producer) wants to do nothing, and for life in the colony to remain the same. No offense to any other performances this year, but you could populate the entire Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars with just these women, and I wouldn’t complain.
While the performances and Polley’s script bring specificity to these characters, they still feel like something out of an allegory. The dialogue resembles poetry more than everyday speech; the language doesn’t feel naturalistic, but it creates a sense of marvel at the strength of the writing. Persuasive debates arise around faith, systems of power, and forgiveness, offering a thoughtful approach to each issue.
Yet somehow amidst all the horrors here, Women Talking isn’t a grim experience. Though the women debate and occasionally verbally attack one another, they treat each other respectfully, apologizing for harsh words spoken in moments of duress. There’s a generosity toward each character, both from those on screen and from the film itself. As the women work toward a better life for themselves and their children — whether in their colony or striking out on their own — hope drives them forward and is what remains once the credits begin. A wry humor is also present, whether in Buckley’s eye rolls at her fellow debaters or in mangled use of profanity.
Despite its heavy subject matter, this isn’t the kind of film that burdens the audience for hours afterward. Women Talking feels like a gift; its cast and crew are at the top of their game. Their work is in service of a movie that gives women a literal voice as well as the promise of a better world, one where these types of violations won’t happen to their sisters and daughters.
“Women Talking” is out Friday in limited release. It opens wide on January 6th.