Forming the very marrow of Sarah Polley’s quietly lacerating new drama “Women Talking” are the bold and timely themes of female survival and solidarity. That alone is enough for an engrossing story. But part of what makes Polley’s film adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel so potent are the many other thematic threads that run throughout the movie. Threads that speak to the female experience in a variety of other ways. Altogether it’s an intense, insightful and sobering experience packed with more than a few surprises.
Among the key reasons “Women Talking” works so well is Polley’s ability to take this dialogue-heavy, mostly single-setting story and make it feel bigger. The vast majority of the movie is indeed a group of women talking in a hayloft. But it never feels restricted to just that. It’s partially because Polley gives us several moments to step outside the loft and catch our breath. Some of these scenes have a sumptuous Malickian delicacy, as if showing us the wishful side of colony life. Other scenes are understandably harsher. They’re often in the form of brief stabbing flashes, like a painful haunting memory that suddenly come to a character’s mind. Collectively, they make this feel like more than a simple chamber piece.
Another reason is Polley’s crafty screenplay which digs deep into the subject matter and does a great job defining the different voices we hear. But she also broadsides us with subtle slivers of dark humor. You rarely see them coming, and they offer a few welcomed respites from the heavier material. There are a few small kinks. Some exchanges can come across as stiff, and the dialogue is occasionally too writerly. But Polley’s sharp pacing, balance of tone, and great character treatment makes those quibbles easy to get past.
The story is introduced through a traumatic and revealing overhead shot. A young woman named Ona (a sublime Rooney Mara) sluggishly wakes up in her bed with bruises and dried blood on her thighs. We recognize the marks and know what they mean. But just to be certain Polley makes it crystal clear a few seconds later. Dazed by something other than pure shock, Ona calls out to her mother. We quickly learn this isn’t the first case of sexual assault in their Mennonite colony. “It went on for years. To all of us,” says our affecting young narrator, Autje (newcomer Kate Hallett).
As it turns out, women of all ages, even young girls, have repeatedly been drugged and raped by men in the colony. At first the women are told that it’s evil spirits visiting them in the night – a punishment for their own transgressions. But that lie is exposed when a young girl witnesses her attacker fleeing through a field. After another girl is assaulted, her enraged mother takes a sickle to the culprit – an act that finally prompts the elders to call the police. They take the rapists into custody, but not in an effort of enact some long overdue justice. In fact, we never get the sense that these men are going to be held accountable for their sins.
Before the colony’s religious leaders leave to bring the men back home, they give the women two days to either forgive their attackers or leave the colony. If they chose to leave, they would forfeit their chance to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s one of several instances where the film takes a scalpel to the distortion of religion. Here the men twist scripture and wield their warped view of faith as a means to reinforce their oppressive rule. The colony’s women aren’t taught to read or write, a move designed to further their dependency on the men. And with their patriarchal control, the men feed the women all sorts of lies, especially regarding their religion.
But these aren’t weak women, and upon learning the truth, they decide to act. With the men gone, they gather in a barn and hold a vote to determine their course of action. The women give themselves three options: Do Nothing, Stay and Fight, or Leave. But reaching a unified decision proves difficult. It eventually comes down to ‘Stay and Fight’ or ‘Leave’ the colony. This frustrates the stern and cynical Janz (Frances McDormand who also produces), the loudest voice among the ‘Do Nothing’ contingent who promptly recuses herself (a bummer because we hardly see McDormand again).
In order to hash out a final decision, a chosen group of women convene in a hayloft led by two wise and knowledgeable matriarchs, Greta (Sheila McCarthy), and Agata (Judith Ivey). They’re joined by younger women including Mara’s Ona, Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Mejal (Michelle McLeod). They summon a colony outcast but university educated August (a heartbreaking Ben Whishaw) to record the minutes of their meetings. The discussions that follow are strikingly candid and the different viewpoints are compelling. For example, one considers pacifism while another is enraged; one is a defeatist while another is optimistic to a fault. It leads to some passionate clashes that are fascinating to watch.
Toews’ book was inspired by a true account, and knowing that makes Polley’s film register on an even more visceral level. Yet it’s also self-described as “an act of female imagination” which lets her blend more of her own perspective into the story. The results are gut-wrenching. And it’s even more profound once Polley kicks in the period-piece facade to reveal something far more prescient and of our time. It won’t be for everyone. But it’s hard to deny the timeliness of its themes and the boldness with which Polley takes them on. “Woman Talking” is now available in select theaters.