In a small colony, in an undisclosed location in the United States, lies a community of Mennonite-like religious conservatives living in a massive imbalance of power. The women of the colony are born and bred to tend to every need of their husbands and other male counterparts. Their faith in God and love for their children keep them moving forward, as they are abused, drugged, and raped constantly by the men of the colony at night and are told, gaslighted, that it’s not the men but a ghost or something supernatural and punishment for the sins they commit. No education is afforded to them; no women know how to read or write, as set forth by the counsel of all male leaders, while their sons are given a chance to go as far as college and other opportunities that these women could never dream of. It’s within this set up we find the start of the conflict in director Sarah Polley’s brutally powerful Women Talking, adapted from Miriam Toews’ harrowing novel.
Narrated by young Autje (Kate Hallett, “This story begins before you were born,” she begins, in the style of a fable to be passed down), we have come to learn that for the last couple of years, the men of the community have increased their heinous acts of sexual violence on the women, covering all age groups within the female population with nightmares and scares they carry with them daily. When the perpetrator of the latest attack is seen by Autje and Nietje (Liv McNeil) and they identify him, it causes Salome (Claire Foy) to fly into a rage, attacking the man with a scythe. caused for the outside authorities of the modern world. As a result, the police intervene and come and arrest the men who were reported to have molested and abused several women. While the rest of the men of the community go into town to bail out the arrested, the women are ordered to find the ability to forgive and forget these disgusting actions so the colony can move on as things were before. But instead, for the first time ever, they decide to take a vote, to see if they will forgive the men, stay and fight them, or flee the colony and start a better life beyond the overwhelming environment they live in. The vote is split, leading to a group of eight women, in various age ranges, coming together to make the final decision for what is best for everyone.
Set in 2010 (a census taker drives by asking residents to come out of houses and be counted establishes our time) and mostly inside the second story of a barn, Polley’s immaculate script captures the rage, fear, regret, devotion, and struggle within each of the women represented. Salome is tired of the way things have escalated and finds that violence might be the only answer left to protect herself and her children from being taken advantage of again. Foy’s furious line delivery within her monologue is unlike anything we’ve seen from her in her career. The urgency and anger displayed is balanced perfectly with her sorrow and fear of life outside the colony. On the other side, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) doesn’t see how violence or leaving is the answer, even though her husband has done unspeakable things to her repeatedly over the course of their marriage. When she pushes back on every idea that is presented to the group, we see Buckley shine in a performance that slowly loosens up to the point where everything around them explodes, leading to an epiphany and one last sacrifice for herself and the group. Then there is Ona (Rooney Mara), who sees fleeing as the only chance of hope to find peace in hers and others’ hearts in forgiving the men and God for what has happened to them. Mara’s calmness and innocent performance gracefully stands as a glimpse into what the women could be in the future, independent and searching for knowledge beyond what they are permitted to learn. All three characters, portrayed expertly by these extraordinary actresses, not only represent the three choices within the debate of the film, but the only choices that women are given in the modern world when it comes to events like this. It is not an easy decision to land on, as each perspective is given its due in examining the ramifications of how things will play out once a choice is made.
Adding to this conversation is a vital component of youth and wisdom, in the form of the three women’s daughters (Hallett, McNeil, and Michelle McLeod) and mothers (Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy). The young girls at first find the conversations boring and tiresome, as they are still at a formative age where the harsh realities of the world have sunk in just yet. But as the conversations continue, they all open up about what has happened to them and start standing up for themselves and the women who raised them, nudging them to come to a final conclusion. In this too, we hear stories from Agata and Agatha (Ivey and McCarthy) that volley from devastating, real, and even humorous because they feel so lived in. When the idea of asking the men to leave is brought up, Agata tears down the mere thought of it because they have never asked them for anything before in their life, including to stop the vile treatment towards them. And with Greta, what starts as a running joke about her horses and how she takes them into town slowly turns into a hopeful metaphor about leaving to a place of uncertainty but having faith and trust that everything will be fine in the long run.
As these conversations are happening, the group assigned August (Ben Whishaw), the local teacher for the boy’s education, to take the minutes of their meetings and document everything that has been said in these long talks. The reason he is worth trusting is because his family was excommunicated from the colony due to August’s mother asking too many questions. Since returning from college, he was brought back in at an arm’s length to teach the community’s boys everything they need to know so they can be well educated just like him. Most of the women are fine with August, especially Ona, for whom they share a mutual kinship to one another. Whishaw’s quite yet stellar performance brings the last layer of hope yet caution to the group’s meeting, as he provides them with his soul crushingly honest take on the growth of a boy to a man and how cyclical and circular the trajectory of all men once they grow up.
Beyond having one of the best ensembles of the year, the true power of Women Talking lies in Sarah Polley, who has written the best screenplay of the year, with sharp dialogue that leaves your blood boiling while tearing your heart apart. Polley makes some many smart choices throughout the course of the film, from never showing the abuse and leaving the words of these women to speak for the actions done on them, to taking breaks from the meetings to see the landscape they are from, to having Luc Montpellier’s darkly tinted cinematography and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s bone chilling score lay the groundwork for the setting the tension within this dower situation. In her first feature film in 11 years, she skillfully pushes herself and the boundaries of the cinematic medium as a visionary writer-director on all levels, striking an emotional tone that is destined to resonate, much like her previous work behind the camera.
When the final decision is made by the group of eight, their judgment resonates while harkening back to McCarthy’s monologue, proving this journey will be one of looking forward to the promise of what lies ahead instead of the issue standing clearly in front of them. The uncertainty is frightening but ultimately provides a beacon of light to shine on the potential for real hope.
This review is from the 2022 Telluride Film Festival. United Artists Releasing and Orion will release Women Talking only in theaters on December 2 in select theaters and wider on December 25.