Members of an insular religious community face choices about their future in Polley's compelling ensemble drama.
Written and directed by Sarah Polley (Away From Her), Women Talking is one of those movies that get a lot of attention from critics and not a lot from audiences. Potential viewers who are instantly put off by the subject matter — the aftermath of years of rape and sexual abuse — should know that the film doesn't depict those acts on-screen.
Rather, Women Talking is exactly what the title suggests: a sort of talky courtroom drama without a defendant, in which a group of illiterate but articulate women argue over how best to exercise the modest amount of control they have over their lives. Nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, it's playing at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas as of press time.
For years, the women and girls of the Colony have suffered nighttime assaults that their male elders attribute to demons, ghosts or "wild female imagination." Then the women catch one of their attackers and force him to name the others. The men of the Colony go to the city to bail out the arrested rapists, ordering the women to forgive the culprits upon their return so that the life of the community may continue as before.
Left alone, the women have two days to decide what to do next: forgive and forget, "stay and fight," or leave the Colony and face excommunication and possible damnation. They hold a council in the barn, enlisting schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), a man who stayed behind, to take the minutes for them.
Will you like it?
Polley deliberately presents Women Talking as a story with minimal context. The women wear skirts and bonnets, and the images of haylofts and cornfields have a dreamy, desaturated lyricism that (ironically) suggests an idealized past. Yet we eventually learn the action takes place in the 21st century. Opening text describes the story as "an act of female imagination." But it doesn't specify that the source is Miriam Toews' novel, also called Women Talking, which was inspired by real events that took place in an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia.
This vagueness gives the story more allegorical weight than perhaps it should need to bear. Viewers unaware of the real-life inspiration have criticized Women Talking for presenting a debate among a group of white, Christian women as if it were universal. Clearly, these women don't represent all women. But their conflict, couched in Toews' and Polley's elegant, slightly stagy dialogue, is undeniably resonant. And the uniformly powerful performances allow each character to embody both a believable individual and a heightened archetype in a way that is reminiscent of classical drama.
It's tough to pick a favorite in this seamless ensemble, which is perhaps why none of the actors ended up nominated for an Oscar. The central conflict erupts between Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), mothers of children who have also been victims. Both are consumed with rage, but Salome wants to fight and transform the Colony from within, while the bitter Mariche rejects any possibility of positive change.
Ona (Rooney Mara), a single woman pregnant with her attacker's child, is the idealist of the group, waxing eloquent about a world of equity and harmony. The elders (Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy) provide whimsy, moderation and perspective. The teens (Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil) roll their eyes and disrupt the proceedings with their restless antics. But we know from Hallett's voice-over narration that they are listening — because the future being decided here will belong to them.
These "women talking" differ from many women of 2023 in obvious ways: Illiterate, offline and unable to locate themselves on a map, they face terrifying uncertainty outside the homestead. Yet the dilemmas they face are familiar: How do you reconcile your love for some men with your hatred of a system that gives all men far too much power? How do you express anger when you believe in peace? How do you talk about things for which you've never been given the words? How much can you forgive before your sense of self begins to erode? When is it worth it to take a leap in the dark?
These days, it may seem naïve to suggest that talking could resolve any of these questions. The debates in Women Talking are nothing like the circular ones we have on social media, however, because they depend on the women's lifelong, face-to-face knowledge of one another and their faith in the possibility of a community that embraces everyone. Maybe that's exactly why we should listen to what they have to say.
If you like this, try...
She Said (2022; Peacock, rentable): This drama about the two New York Times reporters who meticulously gathered the evidence of Harvey Weinstein's misconduct is also about women talking — and persuading other women to talk on the record.
Stories We Tell (2012; Freevee, Kanopy, YouTube TV): In this highly personal documentary, Polley explores the power of storytelling to shape our memories, a theme that returns in Women Talking.
"Under the Banner of Heaven" (2022; Hulu): If you're put off by the dearth of men in Women Talking, why not explore how an insular religious patriarchy goes wrong from their point of view? While this miniseries has been criticized for its portrayal of the Church of Latter-day Saints, it offers a compellingly lurid story of how people come to accept abuse and even murder in the name of authority.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Women Talking"
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.