Based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, Women Talking is a powerhouse of a film that will leave your heart aching. The story focuses on a Mennonite colony where the women are continuously victims of violent sexual assaults at the hands of the local men. To keep themselves and the children safe, the women decide to band together and decide what they should do to free themselves from the ever-present danger. The women ultimately only have three choices: forgive their assaulters, stay and fight, or leave.
Left up to a vote, the group must decide the best option and how it will affect the rest of the colony’s women moving forward. And so, the women talk… they question the pros and cons of each potential decision while also acknowledging the place that their faith has in the situation. They ponder whether or not it is true forgiveness if it’s something forced upon them by others, specifically the colony’s men. Women Talking is a lot to absorb, and even though the female characters bond over their shared trauma, they too fight amongst one another about the lies they’ve been told and the relentless atrocities they’ve endured.
From Miriam Toews’ novel, filmmaker Sarah Polley crafts an engaging and heartbreaking adaptation about lost innocence, the horrors of the patriarchy, the misuse of religion, and the resilience of women standing in their power. It’s been 11 years since Polley directed her last feature, the underrated romantic comedy Take This Waltz, and honestly, it’s as if no time has passed between that writing and directorial venture and Women Talking. Regardless of the difference in genre, Polley is as in control of the narrative at hand as ever.
True to form, Polley demonstrates the importance of dialogue and conversation, focusing on the humanity of each character with ease. In addition, most of the plot in Women Talking takes place in one location, adding to the feeling of being trapped and isolated despite being among many. Polley puts the audience in an extreme, fly-on-the-wall scenario where they observe this vulnerable decision-making process first-hand and are even active participants in the oppressive conditions the women of the colony suffer.
Of course, this is impossible without the actors aptly portraying the colony’s women. Claire Foy shines as Salome, unwilling to forgive the men that have harmed her and her family, including her sister, Ona, played by Rooney Mara. Jessie Buckley as Mariche adds another pivotal layer to the complicated ensemble of women who are left to decide the looming fate of the colony. Salome and Mariche represent each side of the coin, both coming from an incredibly frustrating yet fair point of view, with Ona providing the voice of reason, honesty, and, often, hopefulness.
This main trio of actors work exceptionally well together, giving their all from start to finish. Watching these three go back and forth in impassioned speeches or allowing themselves to snap under the weight of their vulnerability is breathtaking to behold. Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley are nothing short of exceptional in their roles, and you can very well expect to see their names go far in conversations during the upcoming awards season.
The matriarchs of the group, Greta and Agata, played by Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey respectively, dominate the screen just as much. Caught between the colony they’ve only known, and their daughters’ and granddaughters’ safety, McCarthy and Ivey have more reserved roles than their counterparts, but their portrayals are not any less powerful. Their calm and composed manner throughout Women Talking proves that you don’t need the loudest voice in the room to be heard, and as the mothers and elders of the colony, McCarthy and Ivey perfectly convey this dramatic weight.
Women Talking is a film that fires on all cylinders. From the precise direction to the enduring performances to the beautiful score created by Academy Award-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and rich cinematography by Luc Montpellier, this film has everything you could want in a stellar adaptation. In comparison, there are some noteworthy changes from the novel, like the narration changing from August Epp (portrayed by Ben Whishaw) to the younger generation of the colony’s girls, including Autje (depicted by Kate Hallett). This new route is necessary because it makes the sole man who is privy to the main conversation, August, only listen and take in the information rather than having his voice overshadow the women’s.
Furthermore, hearing the voice of the young Autje naturally shows the generational trauma within the colony and that the cycle of violence continues – putting a more drastic emphasis on the many repercussions that can come from what moves the ensemble of women decide to do next. One of the film’s stars, Shayla Brown (who plays Helena), said it best: “To stay and fight takes immense courage. To leave a situation that is unsafe takes courage. And to stay and do nothing takes immense courage.”
Women Talking will likely leave audiences much to mull over when they’re not constantly dabbing away tears. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you might even find yourself yelling at the screen. Once again, Sarah Polley has a masterful vision and sees it through all the way to create a gripping piece of cinema. Poignant and powerful, Women Talking is undoubtedly one of this year’s best.