Morality, autonomy, agency, and community intersect in writer/director Sarah Polley‘s absorbing drama Women Talking. Literary in its pedigree — it’s adapted from Canadian author Miriam Toews’ same-named 2018 novel — and play-like in its simplicity of setting and scope, the thought-provoking film explores what happens when a group of women in a conservative, isolated religious colony must make a decision that will affect all of their lives forever.
The women — who are specified as Mennonites in the novel but not named as such in the movie — gather in a hayloft to discuss the monumental responsibility they’ve been given: deciding the fate of a group of men in the colony who have been systematically drugging and raping the women. The perpetrators have been taken to jail by external authorities but will be bailed out by the rest of the colony’s menfolk; by the time they return, the women must decide what course of action to take: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
And so the debate begins. Feeling somewhat like an all-female spin on 12 Angry Men, Polley follows the key characters as they make their arguments and evaluate the pros and cons of each choice. Opinions vary based on age, circumstance, and experience. Fiery Salome (Claire Foy) is ready to declare war on those who would ask her to forgive the beasts who raped her young daughter. Ona (Rooney Mara), a spinster who became pregnant as a result of the attacks and harbors feelings for mild-mannered note-taker August (Ben Whishaw), appears to take a more measured approach to evaluating their options, while Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) is hesitant to risk life outside the safety of the only home they’ve ever known. Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, and Sheila McCarthy round out the core cast of daughters, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers who attempt to find consensus.
Choices that might seem easy on their face carry complex nuance here, and the characters grapple with fear of the unknown, tattered ideals, and the challenge of reconciling anger and a desire for retribution with the tenets of the faith they all still hold dear. Polley approaches it all with empathy, grace, and an understanding that “doing the right thing” doesn’t always feel like the right thing — but that there’s always hope for those who dare to change their stories.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Pam Grady: The women of an isolated rural community must decide to observe the status quo and the sexual violence and constricted lives that go with it or make a bid for their own freedom – a move that consigns them to eternal damnation according to the tenets of their faith. Sarah Polley’s first feature since her acclaimed 2012 documentary Stories We Tell is an evocative adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel that unfolds in a series of intense conversations between women who have been deprived of an education and conditioned to accept the domination of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The ensemble is everything in this intense talkfest with Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, and Sheila McCarthy among the stellar cast, each offering a new dimension to the looming question to stay or go, trading predictable, if terrible lives, for a leap into the great unknown. Ben Whishaw adds strong support as the sect’s gentle teacher and the only evidence the women have that not all men are brutes. Like the character he plays, the actor is self-effacing, ceding the spotlight to his costars in this powerful drama.
Nell Minow: The women in this film cannot read or write. They know nothing about the world outside of their small, isolated community. That lends a purity to the debate that takes up most of he film. It is not about what they will do or where they will go if they leave or wha rights they should have. it is just about what is right, what is necessary. Writer/director Sarah Polley makes each character both symbolic and authentic, layered, and real. The performances are all exquisite, making the story transcend its setting to touch on universal conflicts.
Sherin Nicole The recent news and the historical records seem to tell us: If a woman is harmed by a man, it is her fault; If a woman defends herself against the man who harms her, it is her fault. That is the shattering fault line in our culture. So, when the parable, Women Talking, presents the options “Do nothing. Stay and fight. Or leave.” it seeks to discover what we as women want and how we might raze and reshape society towards autonomy. It is not an intersectional film, but its themes are tangible. Sarah Polley’s taut writing and her impactfully claustrophobic directing render a conundrum with a timebomb inside it. And we feel the tick, tick, tick, tick… The women and the lone man embodying this social thriller don’t merely seek breath within the chokehold of institutionalized abuse but to exhale. Making this allegory more palpable is Polley’s decision to take the singular event in Miriam Toews’ book and make a metaphor for misogyny, period. Will they or won’t they becomes secondary to whether or not the children (therefore the future) can ever be safe—even from one another—and how complicit are ‘the women’ in perpetuating the crimes against them.
Leslie Combemale Women Talking is the sort of film that probably couldn’t have been made five years ago. This belief women have something to say that an audience might resonate with is pretty new. Writer/director Polley really captures the gallows humor and rage that accompanies much of the trials women endure in their lifetime, and the discussions we as women have with each other about our hardest experiences. The performances are flawless and never short of compelling, showing what a nearly all-female cast can do when given the chance and a quality script. The potential audience for the film is huge if it gets the amplification it deserves from critics. Will it? As someone who knows other films of its ilk won’t stand a chance without this one’s success, I really hope so.
Loren King With her fourth feature, Sarah Polley again distinguishes herself as director whose work blends a meticulous sense of craft and a strong point a view. Women Talking, which Polley adapted from fellow Canadian Miriam Toews’s novel, is spare, visually compelling and boasts the strongest ensemble acting of any film this year. As with She Said, about dogged journalists uncovering mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades of abuse and its cover up, Women Talking is also about the risks of breaking silence about abuse. The women who talk, grappling with their own fates and that of their sisters, aunts, mothers, children, are members of an isolated religious community who have suffered systemic abuse from their own men. Not all the women who meet in secret in a hayloft want to choose one of the three options put to them — do nothing, leave or stay and fight — which leads to passionate, fraught debate. When the decision is made and action taken, Polley and her stellar cast that includes Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy and Ben Whishaw as their sole trusted male ally, deliver a moment deservedly momentous. There is danger, but mostly there is the desire for self-determination and hope for birthing a better world.
Susan Wloszczyna: Those who enjoy ensemble dramas will likely appreciate filmmaker Sarah Polley’s Women Talking – especially those who support the #MeToo movement and who will gladly listen to some talented ladies who have a huge decision to make. In 2010, the women of a community who have had enough must make a decision about leaving their isolated Mennonite colony that allows the men to drug and rape the women while bloodily beating them in the night, initially blaming an animal like a goat or Satan or attributing the physical assaults as acts of female imagination. Read full review.
Marilyn Ferdinand The community in Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews’ adaptation of the latter’s novel, Women Talking, looks very different from the modern world in which most of us live. Yet, the women of an isolated religious sect who are raped in their sleep almost daily face a fundamental choice. Unwilling to do nothing, do they stay and fight, forcing the men to take responsibility and change their ways, or do they leave? A small group of women is chosen to consider these options over a 48-hour period and decide for all of the women. I was a bit surprised that there wasn’t as much debate about the issue in Women Talking as the title would suggest; Polley prefers to spend time with the individual women and their lives, perhaps in an attempt to show us various points of view and prevent the film from feeling too stagebound. The outcome of their debate is both sad and understanding: even if systems of oppression can be changed for the better, it may be wiser to reject them and create something new and autonomous.
Jennifer Merin Women Talking is writer/director Sarah Polley’s haunting and beautifully crafted cinema adaptation of Miriam Toew’s eponymous novel about fundamentalist women who must decide whether to leave their isolated religion-ruled community or continue to tolerate physical abuse by the community’s men. Based on the true story of women who were being drugged and sexually assaulted in an isolated Mennonite community in Bolivia, the film has relevance for all women who must chose what to do in the face of socially sanctioned physical and emotional abuse. One of the best films of the year, Women Talking must be seen and shared with others, especially young women who have yet to establish personal boundaries.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking is a remarkable drama about a group of women who debate what to do after being sexually assaulted in an isolated religious community. Based on Canadian author Miriam Toews’ book, the movie faithfully captures the feminist musings of the women, young and old, who must figure out whether it’s better to stay and forgive, stay and fight, or leave but be ex-communicated. The entire cast is fantastic: Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, as well as Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy. Beautifully performed and thoughtfully adapted.
Liz Whittemore Sarah Polley’s cinema adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking translates with astonishing power. A push and pull between faith and feminism, the story centers on three generations of Mennonite women who re trying to come to terms with the sexual and physical violence they suffer within their small community. After years of sweeping the assaults under the rug in fear of the community’s patriarchal dominance and tradition, the women convene, in secret, to discuss their fate and that of their female compatriots. Read full review.
Cate Marquis 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. Read full review.
Title: Women Talking
Directors: Sarah Polley
Release Date: November 23, 2022
Running Time: 104 minutes
Screenwriters: Sarah Polley and Miriam Toews
Distribution Company: United Artists Releasing
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin