In Sarah Polley’s searing ensemble, there are indeed women talking but it is what they are talking about and who they are that grips us from the start. The subject these conservative Mennonite women gathered in a barn are talking about is whether to forgive the men. For what, we don’t know at first but it is gradually revealed as something most would find unforgivable.
There is a true story behind director/writer Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, which stars Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Ben Whishaw. The drama starring is based on Miriam Toew’s novel of the same name, which itself was inspired by real events, a series of attacks in an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia, in which women and girls were drugged and raped over an extended period. It was later revealed that the attacks were carried out by the men of their own community. The novel, and its film adaptation, imagine the conversation the women might have had while deciding what to do.
That conversation takes place in a barn, out of men’s sight, among the women who have been attacked or whose family members have been. There is no question of the men’s guilt, the only question is will the women stay or leave. Staying requires that they forgive the men, as their faith demands, no matter how heinous the crime, as forgiveness is required to enter heaven. And there is a ticking clock aspect to this dilemma as well. The women must decide what they will do before the men, who have been arrested, are bailed out and return home. The women present are all ages, some of them are girls.
The choice they face is daunting. By the rules of their faith, if they do not forgive the men, they will be excommunicated and be forced to leave. By forgiving them, they can stay, but staying under those conditions does not seem even possible. As one woman notes, it is as if they are the ones being punished.
The decision and the short time to make it fill the air with electricity. Although most of the film centers on women talking in a barn, whose closed-in nature feels like a metaphor for the women’s situation, there is nothing constricted here, thanks to powerful performance from an outstanding ensemble cast and a brilliant script. The work of the cast, and some outside scenes, help defuse any staginess created.
And it is an ensemble tour-de-force, leading off with Frances McDormand, as an older woman with a dramatic scar across her face called Scarface Janz, who dryly lays out the groundwork for what is to come. However, McDormand’s character is not the major one, and the dramatic reins are quickly taken up by Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy, as Ona, Mariche and Salome, all in fine form as they forcefully debate from very diverging views about what to do. McDormand’s character is joined by two additional wise older women, Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey) who weigh in, sometimes soothing frayed nerves and defusing tensions, and sometimes offering another direction. There are some girls present as well, some chafing a bit at being kept from play, and occasionally a youngster, Miep (Emily Mitchell).
There is only one man present, the community’s teacher, August (Ben Whishaw), who is there only to take notes, not to participate. They need a man for that task because the women of this settlement are not taught to read or write.
The women may be uneducated but they are clearly whip-smart, as the sharp talk reveals. It also reveals that this is not the first secret meeting that has taken place among these women. As the women discuss what they will do, with some tempers flare and viewpoints diverge, we also learn more about them and their individual lives. Long-hidden resentments bubble up as conversations become heated but there are flashes of humor as well. Often these lighter moments come from the girls who are present, mischievously misbehaving and expressing impatience with discussions of what seems straightforward to them. Ben Whishaw is excellent as the one man present, himself nearly an outcast among the men, as someone whose mother was a member who left, making him only partly accepted. On occasion, he tries to make suggestions to the women, only to be properly silenced.
As the women talk, we get brief flashbacks that depict some of what happened. These are disturbing scenes but sensitively depict the aftermath rather than the attack, often the moment each woman or girl wakes up in pain and bloodied. Some of what happened is revealed as the women talk but these interludes interject an immediacy and emotion that discussion cannot.
The ticking clock means that when arguments start to circle back on themselves, someone has to remind the women that talking cannot be unlimited, upping the tension.
Fine photography by Luc Montpellier makes the most of light slanting through the barn’s boards, and the contrast of the bright sunlight outside. Colors are muted, as would be expected and what color there is seems to come from the natural world. A few scene outside and a few flashbacks visually break up the drama unfolding in the dimly-lit barn, until the women’s decision is finally reached.
The story of women abused by men is given another layer of complexity, given the women’s commitment to their different community life and to their shared faith, layers that both complicated and deepen the human story that unfolds.
The timeliness of the story is undeniable in the Me Too era, and having this cast of gifted women to tell it is a gift. The wide ranging discussion touches on a topics on all levels, and all ways of coping with trauma are on full view as well, from anger to denial to confusion. It is all brilliantly laid out for us by Sarah Polley’s intelligent script and her firm directorial hand, and delivered to us with fiery sparks by this wonderful cast.
Women Talking is showing at the Toronto International Film Festival and is set to open in the U.S. on Dec. 2.