Women Talking ★★★★

Women Talking starts off with a subtitle that declares the film “an imagination.” Though Sarah Polley adapted her film from both a novel by Miriam Toews and a real-life event in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, Women Talking comes off as a heightened interplay of ideas and conflicting emotions. It is a discussion where all participants are given time to speak and all ideas are considered thoughtfully, even when they spark intense emotion. It is an idealized representation of discussions in general, but that is not to the film’s detriment.

Women Talking 2

The issue under discussion is a matter of survival. In this secluded community, many of the women have woken up to find that they have been sexually or otherwise physically violated. The men of the community claim that they have been visited by demons or Satan himself. Only when one of the women catches one of the young men in the act do the women in the community get to the bottom of these crimes. Nearly all the men of the community have been drugging the women with anaesthetics and raping and assaulting them at night. The women call for a vote among themselves as to whether they should do nothing, stay and fight, or leave the community. 

The vote is tied between “stay and fight” and “leave.” Representatives from the three most influential families are sent to a meeting at a barn where much of the action of the film will take place. Adding to the urgency of the discussion is the impending return of the men to the community who either confessed or were named by others. Of even greater importance to quite a few of these women is the distinct possibility of excommunication, which would be the fate of anyone who chooses to leave the community.

A passing familiarity with any of these actors (Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, etc.) should signal to any viewer that this discussion will be gripping. The script also gives each of these actors distinct personalities that interact (and sometimes clash) with each other in fascinating ways. All of these women are justifiably angry, but their anger manifests in different ways. Claire Foy’s anger manifests in biting words and vitriol while Rooney Mara’s is softer but no less determined. While each actor gets their moments, there is no needless grandstanding and even lesser known actors (Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod) get their moments. Women Talking is a true ensemble piece.

Despite the dialogue-driven nature of the story, Women Talking is far from claustrophobic or airless. Polley takes great pain to make the visuals and blocking compelling, reflecting the dynamics of the debate that these women are having. There are even quite a few moments of humor, especially from the young girls who are at the meeting and are both bored and frustrated at the glacial pace and circular nature of the discussion. 

Though the women’s grievances are definitely the central focus of the play, the presence of Ben Whishaw’s August illuminates the nature of this discussion. August is allowed into the meeting to apparently take minutes for the meeting and help the women with any writing or reading involved since they have been kept deliberately uneducated. August’s role is important in that he stands in for us the viewer, and his presence makes it so that the women perform not for his benefit but for his edification. They can speak knowing that their passion behind their words will be impressed on a receptive audience, especially since they know that there is no chance that any man in this community apart from August will be at all amenable to the women’s horrid predicament.

Underlying Women Talking is an impassioned plea to not forget the words of women who have been silenced through the threat of violence, sexual and otherwise. Yet this plea is not didactic or moralistic but rather complex and all-encompassing in terms of the emotions it wants to convey. Polley and her collaborators have created a rich work that goes beyond the dialogue of the film and lets its viewers absorb the impact of the discussion in complex ways that one might not have expected from such a film.

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