“What follows is an act of female imagination,” declares a tile card at the beginning of Women Talking. It’s an accurate description — the feature is writer-director Sarah Polley’s adaptation of a novel by Miriam Toews, centered on the female members of a Mennonite colony. But those opening words are also a taunt and a challenge: The women are sorting out their response to years of calculated sexual abuse, years in which the male leaders of their sect silenced their complaints by insisting that the horrors they experienced belonged to the realm of demons or the “wild female imagination.”
At the core of Polley’s smart, compassionate film is the belief that in movies and in life, words can be action — and for people who have been denied a voice, they can be revolutionary. The philosophical and sometimes faith-steeped bent of the women’s discussion might put off audiences not willing to go there. For those ready to take the leap, the thoughtful and beautifully lensed feature is a rewarding exploration that addresses not just the characters’ predicament but the existential questions that face any contemporary woman navigating patriarchal setups.
The Bottom Line
A finely crafted vision of rage and hope.
Toews’ 2019 novel was inspired by horrific events in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, where for years women were drugged and raped while they slept by a group of men in their colony. The book revolved around the women’s deliberations, in a hayloft, after they learned the truth about their assaults. Their discussion was filtered through the voice of the one man they still trusted, schoolteacher August, enlisted to take the minutes of their meetings because none of them had been taught to read or write. In Polley’s interpretation, August, played by Ben Whishaw, is an exceptionally moving character, but the women’s voices drive the story without intermediary, brought to life by a strong ensemble of newcomers and established talents.
The film is shot in widescreen by Luc Montpellier with a desaturated palette of sepias, blacks, grays and blues, a visual scheme enhanced by Peter Cosco’s subtle production design and the costumes of Quita Alfred, which artfully express personalities within the women’s limited wardrobe possibilities in this isolated rural place without a name.
Given a couple of days to forgive the men who have been arrested for the rapes — or be excommunicated from the colony and therefore denied a place in heaven — the women vote on three possible responses: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. These are the essential choices for how to address any life crisis, but for people who have lived such sheltered lives, the vote is an extraordinary undertaking. The tally is a deadlock between the latter two options, and the women from two families are chosen to examine those choices and decide.
With all the men away, either in jail or taking care of bail for those who are, the colony is transformed: The women are on their own. Putting themselves to a test they’d never imagined, and aware that they’re embarking on sacred, life-changing work, they wash one another’s feet before they begin their conversation. Soon beliefs and temperaments clash among the eight people, representing three generations, who gather in the hayloft. The youngest of these, Autje (Kate Hallett), delivers the judiciously used voiceover narration, indicating a future beyond this flash point. Autje and her best friend, the slightly older Neitje (Liv McNeil), braid each other’s hair, goof around and sigh over the back-and-forth, occasionally interjecting a word or two of snark and insight.
The thoughtful, beatific Ona (Rooney Mara), who’s pregnant as the result of her assault, envisions a society where women are educated and participate in community-shaping decisions; she beams with equanimity and idealism. Autje’s mother, Mariche (Jessie Buckley), lashes out at nearly everyone with a fierce belligerence that’s laced with unspoken vulnerability. Salome (Claire Foy), who has already shown the courage to defy the men’s rules by seeking medical treatment for her ailing daughter outside the colony, expresses a less conflicted rage than Mariche’s, and Foy gives the character’s maternal instincts and awareness of injustice a formidable power.
Teenage Mejal (Michelle McLeod) suffers panic attacks and has taken to smoking since her assault. The two oldest women in the group, Agata and Greta, are figures of unfussy wisdom played to perfection by Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, respectively. The women’s anger at the men is an awakening, unraveling lifetimes of unexpressed resentment; the boys are another matters, and with just a few shots of their young faces, Polley asks us to consider how innocent children grow up to be the kind of men who hold women back and sometime brutalize them.
Her screenplay gives each of the main characters a monologue. Frances McDormand, a producer of the film, is onscreen briefly as someone who can’t imagine leaving the community; there’s an untold story in the apparent knife-blade scars on her cheek; the way women’s acceptance of abuse is passed from one generation to the next is addressed elsewhere in the story, movingly.
It’s Whishaw’s August, with his lifelong love for Ono requited in friendship but not romance, who’s the film’s figure of heartbreak. A former member of the colony whose family was banished because his mother “questioned things” about the community’s patriarchal restrictions, he’s at times so wracked with dejection — “If I were married I wouldn’t be myself,” Ono tells him after he suggests they wed — that he can barely finish a sentence.
The most fascinating aspect of the story is that we see these women away from marriage and domestic chores (though there are glimpses of their homes’ spartan simplicity). Once they assemble in that hayloft, they’re focused on monumental questions of self-determination and self-liberation, and they ask one another essential questions, Polley’s eloquent dialogue drawing upon the source material and finding its own rhythms.
What matters more than who wants to stay and who wants to leave is the way the women’s interactions change each of them, and the ways they find harmony, sometimes literally, joining voices in restorative renditions of traditional hymns. In these circumstances, “Nearer My God to Thee” and quotes from Scripture can be expressions of something radical.
Throughout the film, the score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker, Chernobyl) is a deft blend of tradition and a sense of yearning, while the inclusion of the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” enriches a sequence involving a census taker that’s a beautiful pop of the surreal.
Montpellier’s camera follows the colony’s girls as they romp through fields with a lyrical childish abandon. He captures the women’s inner light, and he and Polley frame the women’s interactions with formal compositions that cast them in the glow of something historic, enduring. The world beyond them, viewed from the gaping hayloft doorway, is an impressionist blur. What more could it be for people who have never been permitted to see a map?