Women Talking

Inspired by true events, this powerful drama about women in a religious colony features exceptional performances by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley.
Sarah Ward
Published on February 15, 2023


Get Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand and more exceptional women in a room, point a camera their way, let the talk flow: Sarah Polley's Women Talking does just that, and the Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar-nominee is phenomenal. The actor-turned-filmmaker's fourth effort behind the lens after 2006's Away From Her, 2011's Take This Waltz and 2012's Stories We Tell does plenty more, but its basic setup is as straightforward as its title states. Adapted from Miriam Toews' 2018 novel of the same name, this isn't a simple or easy film, however. That book and this feature draw on events in a Bolivian Mennonite colony from 2005–9, where a spate of mass druggings and rapes of women and girls were reported at the hands of some of the group's men. In a patriarchal faith and society, women talking about their experiences is a rebellious, revolutionary act anyway — and talking about what comes next is just as charged.

"The elders told us that it was the work of ghosts, or Satan, or that we were lying to get attention, or that it was an act of wild female imagination." That's teenage narrator Autje's (debutant Kate Hallett) explanation for how such assaults could occur and continue, as offered in Women Talking's sombre opening voiceover. Writing and helming, Polley declares her feature "an act of female imagination" as well, as Toews did on the page, but the truth in the movie's words is both lingering and haunting. While the film anchors its dramas in a specific year, 2010, it's purposefully vague on any details that could ground it in one place. Set within a community where modern technology is banned and horse-drawn buggies are the only form of transport, it's a work of fiction inspired by reality, rather than a recreation. Whether you're aware of the true tale behind the book going in or not, this deeply powerful and affecting picture speaks to how women have long been treated in a male-dominated world at large — and what's so often left unsaid, too.

Stay and do nothing. Stay and fight. Leave the only home they've ever had behind, be excommunicated from their faith and forgo their spot in heaven. When the Mennonite women catch one of their attackers, he names more, arrests follow and the men are sent to the city — the culprits imprisoned, the rest there to bail them out — those three choices face the ladies of Women Talking. To decide which path to take, they hold a secret vote while the colony's males are away. When the results are tied, a cohort within the cohort chat it out in the barn. From elders to mothers and teens, everyone has a different perspective across three generations, or a different reason for their perspective, but the hurt, pain, dismay and distress simmering among the stern gazes, carefully braided hair and surrounding hay is shared.

The women's religious beliefs dictate one solution only: absolution. That's the outcome demanded by the scarred Janz (The Tragedy of Macbeth's McDormand, also a co-producer here), so much so that she won't entertain alternatives. But her peers Agata (Judith Ivey, The Accidental Wolf) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy, The Broken Hearts Gallery) see shades of grey in their predicament — shades that Polley and her returning Away From Her and Take This Waltz cinematographer Luc Montpellier highlight in Women Talking's colour palette, even though their viewers will scream internally for the women to immediately leave. While dialogue-driven by necessity, the film also spies the country idyll that sits outside the barn doors, where the kids play contentedly in the crops. This isn't an aesthetically sunny movie — its tones are muted, as its women have long been required to be — but it still sees what departing means on multiple levels with clear eyes.

As the debate rages against Hildur Guðnadóttir's (Tár) score of yearning — The Monkees' 'Daydream Believer' also gets a spin, surreally so — Agata's daughter Salome (Foy, The Electrical Life of Louis Wain) furiously advocates for battling. Her toddler daughter was among those attacked, which is understandably something she can't forgive, forget and keep living submissively beside the perpetrators, in a culture that allowed it to happen, afterwards. For Greta's just-as-irate daughter Mariche (Buckley, Men), who is abused by her husband openly aside from the widespread attacks, nothing good can come from running — including with their god. And for Salome's sister Ona (Mara, Nightmare Alley), who is pregnant from being raped, her ideals keep her going. As pros and cons about fighting or fleeing are thrown around, she speaks calmly but passionately about wanting a better community where the Mennonite women have agency and educations, as well as being safe and free. Indeed, because the group cannot read or write, formerly ex-communicated teacher August (Ben Whishaw, No Time to Die) is the lone male permitted to their meeting, taking minutes.

More than a decade has passed between Polley's third film and Women Talking, and cinema has been all the poorer for it. How rich and resonant — how raw, sensitive and potent at the same time — her latest directorial effort proves. Compassionate and thoughtful in every frame, it scorches as a based-on-a-true-tale drama and as a state-of-the-world allegory, and says just as much beneath all the feverish utterances. Even with the Mennonite order's rules and conformity, costuming and hairstyles convey plenty about varying personalities. Letting colour seep into the movie's characters as the sun sets parallels the vibrant personalities these ladies are not expected to possess. And when Women Talking peers at the boys of the collective, it does so softly, asking what it takes to turn those innocent faces into men who'd subdue Salome, Mariche, Ona and company with cow tranquillisers to violate them.

Such a complex and empathetic feature that's also intense, gripping and wide-ranging — pondering gender inequality, what community truly means and should stand for, religious devotion and the sins permitted in its name, unthinking compliance to any societal order and more — is unsurprisingly packed with performances to match. Women Talking's cast are deservedly up for the 2023 Screen Actors Guild Awards ensemble prize, while Buckley and Whishaw earned Gotham Awards nominations as well; there's no weak link in this troupe, including with all the rhythmic chatter. Each in their own way, Foy, Mara, McDormand and their co-stars radiate heartbreak, determination, vulnerability and anger. Whishaw is similarly excellent, but also never the film's focus. These portrayals are talking, too, in a movie that wouldn't fantasise about offering easy answers — but dreams of the possibilities spirited conversations and no longer staying silent can and do bring.


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