THE STORY – Women in an isolated religious colony struggle to reconcile with their faith after a series of sexual assaults.
THE CAST – Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, August Winter, Ben Whishaw & Frances McDormand
THE TEAM – Sarah Polley (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes
“Women Talking” begins with a young girl narrating the following: “This story ends before you were born.” It’s unknown who she’s talking to, but her statement speaks to a bigger picture than what’s on screen. Women today are following in the footsteps of those who came before them, changing the world for women of the future. The story of “Women Talking,” adapted and directed by Sarah Polley, is an artifact to be shared generationally, as the characters in her film practice. These characters include our young narrator, Autje (Kate Hallett), who speaks with observations of women in her patriarchal religious colony. Autje’s voice is a guide toward a place of discussion about the systemic sexual and physical abuse committed by men in the colony. While the men are gone to post bail for one abuser, a group of elected women meets in a hayloft to make a crucial decision. They have two days to decide whether to do nothing, stay and fight, or leave, and the stress of this timeline creates perpetual urgency. As they consider their options, the relationship between faith and forgiveness is called into question. Forgiveness is not only a part of their faith, but it’s also a societal expectation that women be forgiving. Many realities need to be challenged, and “Women Talking” does just that. It’s a story full of contemplation — whether deliberating about pressing matters or daydreaming about a different world. Under thoughtful direction and writing, “Women Talking” is an astonishing forward-thinking adaptation that expands women’s imaginations beyond their personal experiences.
By describing the film as an act of female imagination, Polley echoes the forward of author Miriam Toews’ 2018 book, from which the film’s script is adapted. The author’s story is based on real events in a Mennonite colony where women were repeatedly drugged and raped. Men in the colony tried to make women disbelieve that the attacks really happened, using phrases such as “acts of female imagination” as so-called explanations to avoid accountability. Polley reframes the phrase with empathy to tell a story that centers on women’s ideation and agency. As the film’s characters unpack their rage, they imagine what they want to do and where they want to be. It’s an expansion beyond where these characters are in the present day, particularly how they are defined in relation to setting and circumstance. The film maintains women’s voices as its core; their thoughts are noted, and their emotions are recognized. “We know we are bruised,” Claire Foy’s character Salome explains. “We know that we must protect our children regardless of who is guilty.” She won’t allow her feelings to be undermined or invalidated by whether or not justice is served.
Salome is impassioned, furious, and prepared for God’s wrath. She wants to stay and fight, differing in view from her family, which includes sister Ona (Rooney Mara) and their mother Agata (Judith Ivey). Agata’s elder counterpart Greta (Sheila McCarthy) joins the conversation with daughters Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod). The elders’ granddaughters, Autje (Hallett) and Neitje (Liv McNeil), also listen in. Significant respect is given to how decision-making on such big issues is an ageless group conversation. Polley fosters a welcoming space where perspectives can be contradicting, inspiring, and challenging. There is a shared burden in the women breaking down and analyzing what’s wrong with the society they live in. As they try to find the words to articulate their experiences, they near the deciding factors on how best to move forward.
The discussion helps some of the women unlearn the burdens of harmful thought. They’ve been emotionally manipulated to behave a certain way to simply survive and avoid or minimize harm. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is Greta’s three apologies for encouraging Mariche to be forgiving. Mariche engages in the “not all men” dialogue. She questions the validity of other women’s experiences. Over the course of open conversation, Greta realizes that her daughter has been a student of harmful teaching. Sheila McCarthy and Jessie Buckley astound in this scene, especially McCarthy, who brings a resounding believability to the heartache of wanting what is safest for her daughter and wishing things could be different.
Polley’s balance of perspective is one of the film’s biggest strengths. Beyond the core of women talking, the story is also about men listening and taking notes. The women in the colony weren’t taught to read or write, so they face the challenge of finding the words to describe what they want to say. They are helped by schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), who takes notes of the meeting. August is the only decent man in the colony and the only male character given any character development. It’s a choice that speaks to Polley’s sensitivity in adapting this text. She avoids visual depictions of more triggering elements of the story. The male assaulters aren’t identified on screen, and scenes of sexual assault aren’t explicitly shown. Polley focuses briefly on the aftermaths, but these moments are sparsely featured in the film. However, when they do happen, each carries a powerful impact. Polley shows the understanding that an assault doesn’t need to be explicitly shown for one to understand how it happened or that it happened in the first place. Women’s words are enough.
The constant denial and questioning of women’s experiences is a sad reality. It’s an exhausting and infuriating thread of discussion in which women are made to disbelieve themselves, as is the case in the film. Polley’s adaptation has an interesting juxtaposition between women’s realities in the colony and their imaginations beyond it. Through discussion about their limited options while in an isolated setting, they’re envisioning all that the world can be. Each character has a determined perspective of where they see themselves (or where they don’t) in the world. The openness of conversation makes way for layered topics like faith, forgiveness, rage, and recovery. With all the topics at play, Polley’s direction feels focused as she lets the characters’ analyses of their agency be the vessels for thematic discussion.
For Rooney Mara’s character, Ona, dreams are all she has in a place where it doesn’t matter what women think. Dreams are where she can think without limitation. One of her contemplations is why love, the absence of it, and the denial of it lead to so much violence. If men were shown how to treat women and behave lovingly from an early age, would they know better? She leads with love and patience, played so well by Mara. She gently brings the skill of reading between the lines and conveys a powerful yearning for knowledge. Many of her scenes with Ben Whishaw are resonant examples of both characters’ teachable qualities. As August shows her the meaning of certain words, Ona enlightens him on why he must continue educating. It matters that women’s words are documented accurately.
Beyond the characters channeling important topics of discussion, they are also well-established as human beings. From Sheila McCarthy and Claire Foy to Judith Ivey and Jessie Buckley, the remarkable cast of “Women Talking” are joined hand in hand to tell a bleak and hopeful story. They bring a compelling balance of humor and rage. There’s a rage, particularly to Buckley’s character, Mariche, that speaks not only in response to patriarchy but also to a legacy shared between women that have been passed down from generation to generation. Mariche is trying to unlearn everything she’s been taught, to make room for a new perspective. Her intensity and defensiveness of opinion resonate through Buckley’s portrayal. The presence of rage is manifested in different ways, as is the presence of silence. Ben Whishaw’s character August is an effective reminder that sometimes to be of value in a conversation is to let other people’s voices be heard. And Whishaw brings a compelling gentleness to his role.
Many voices are being heard in the ensemble of “Women Talking.” It’s tricky to determine the sole best performance when everyone is so exceptional – the beauty is in the collaboration. Naturally, there is someone you gravitate to more, and in this film, it’s Sheila McCarthy. Her work as Greta is a fierce reminder of the challenge between following instinct and surviving against it. She often brings up stories of her horses, Ruth and Cheryl. In one story, when the horses were met with an unfamiliar path, they fled in another direction without a moment to think. There’s a fascinating pause of reflection written on McCarthy’s face whenever Greta mentions the horses, which is in contrast to the decisions they need to make without a moment’s pause.
Scarface Janz is one woman who lives on the commune and doesn’t partake in the hayloft conversation but is aware of what’s going on. She makes her perspective known very early on and adheres to it. The casting of Frances McDormand (also a producer on the film) as this character lends an absorbing layer to the overall story and to what Polley’s adaptation prioritizes. McDormand is a powerhouse performer. She has an unforgettable screen presence. Based on her name alone, there’s an expectation that she’ll be a more frequent and visible player throughout the film. While this isn’t the case, her absence does make one wonder. What will become of the women who voted not to leave? McDormand’s subtle work and knowing the proximity of her presence to the hayloft, is a significant reminder not to forget about the conversation happening beyond those walls.
The cast represents different generations of women, further reinforcing that the story is not just about one period of time. The film is driven by a forward-thinking mentality that addresses what happens when a group of women join together and take action for their future. Polley’s adaptation inspires a sense of optimism, which is expressed in numerous ways from the performances, screenplay, and music. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is a stunning balance of both hope and despair. Complementary sounds of acoustic guitar and strings bring the light from moments of darkness. Guðnadóttir evokes the feeling that women’s voices are being heard and that there is a future for them on the horizon. The score stresses the tension of the current timeline and the beauty of moving past it.
Sometimes it feels as though the story of “Women Talking” took place a long time ago. The muted color grading makes the film appear similar to a faded postcard of another lifetime. It’s almost black-and-white but has hints of color. The gradient is an effective decision for reasons that contrast with one another. Considering the actual events that the film is based on took place between 2005 and 2009, only a little time has passed. Polley brings forth an interesting challenge of her own artistic decision to maintain a muted appearance for the film. There’s an interesting dichotomy between how the film is presented versus what is being talked about, and Polley also explores this with narration. The muted gradient paired with the voice of the colony’s youngest member speaks to a story that is much more forward-feeling than stagnant in one place.
The timelessness of “Women Talking” can be attributed to its focus on the conversation itself. This meeting can happen at various moments in time, and the words will still ring true. These women are trying to articulate something so indescribably harrowing that needs to be spoken, and the film depicts a calling to future generations. As Ona explains, the meeting minutes are never to be removed from the hayloft. They must stay as an artifact for others to find and to be aware of what happened. Stories of future generations will be different from “Women Talking”; the narrator speaking to those generations and the acknowledgment that by the film’s end, you will not only carry the weight of its subject matter but with some degree of hope.