We saved this review to feature until closer to the release, coverage took place at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. “Women Talking” comes to select theaters in the US on Friday, December 23rd, and nationwide next month.
In a recent Toronto International Film Festival Q&A for “Women Talking”, director Sarah Polley explains how she wrote multiple passes of the script from the perspective of each female character to ensure that their story lines were completely fleshed out. This is the kind of nuance, care, and empathy that Sarah Polley brings to her latest film in nearly a decade. “Women Talking” based on Canadian author Miriam Toews novel of the same name chronicles the profound decision-making process of a group of Mennonite women who must decide to stay, fight, or leave their colony after a series of sexual assaults committed by the colony’s men threatens their religious faith and hope for a safer future. The film is simple and elegant in its minimal use and dependency on location and editing as the story unfolds much like a theatrical stage play. The poignant and argumentative dialogue bolsters the incredibly emotional and hopeful acting performances by an excellent ensemble of actors that include Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, and Liv McNeil. In “Women Talking”, each character takes turns creating moments of much needed levity, release, and humor. In particular, Sheila McCarthy’s Greta whose recurring mention of her horses Ruth and Cheryl gave audiences permission to laugh while ingesting difficult subject matter.
The film begins with a line of narration: “The following is an act of female imagination”. This line has a twofold meaning. Firstly, Miriam Toews uses a similar line to describe her novel “Women Talking”, which is a fictional story based on a non-fictional event. Toews novel was inspired by an epidemic of sexual abuse that took place in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia from 2005 – 2009. The opening line in the film also refers to the accusation that the women simply imagined the attacks and were told by the men that they were an act of Satan. The film seamlessly switches between narration and dialogue giving the audience much needed breaks from the women who secretly gather in a hayloft to passionately debate the pros and cons of each option. The gentle cinematography and desaturated color palette in “Women Talking“ shows the muted landscape of the Mennonite colony as place of present trauma, but has enough colour left that leaves hope for the possibility of a better future. In a recent TIFF Q&A, Polley mentions that she tested the film in black and white, however the monochromatic approach appeared to take away from the hopefulness and light-hearted moments of joy that she loved so much from Toews’ story.
Contrasting the moments of light-heartedness is Claire Foy’s unbridled rage filled portrait of her character Salome. Foy’s performance is solidified by a gripping monologue that ends with a chilling affirmation: “I will become a murderer if I stay”. As the group of women debate whether or not to stay, this unnerving and defeated admission is deeply understood when it is revealed that Salome’s youngest daughter Miep was also violated during the string of attacks. Foy’s performance as a fiercely protective mother burns with a heat that could set the whole colony ablaze. What Salome’s statement reveals is unimaginable pain and devastation — not simply due to the attacks themselves, but how the traumatic aftermath completely changed her. The abusers have cost Salome her joy and faith and have replaced it with hatred and revenge. The reason why Polley has handled the difficult subject matter in “Women Talking” so eloquently is because of her focus on the aftermath of trauma, and not the violent acts that caused it. In a written statement from Sarah Polley on “Women Talking” she writes: “Though the backstory behind the events in ‘Women Talking’ is violent, the film is not. We never see the violence that the women have experienced. We only see short glimpses of the aftermath. Instead, we watch a community of women come together as they must decide, in a very short space of time, what their collective response will be”.
This film and its subject matter could have been handled very differently if it were written and directed by a male director. Perhaps there would be more focus on violence and vengeance, rather than healing and rebuilding. But what strikes me as a uniquely feminine perspective is that each choice is brave whether it is to leave, to fight, or to stay. In a TIFF Q&A the question is asked, what would you like audiences to take away from this film? A beautiful and powerful response from young actress Shayla Brown who plays Helena replies: “I hope audiences take away the fact that there is no one option that is better than the other or braver than the other. To stay and fight takes immense courage, to leave a situation that is unsafe takes courage, and to stay and do nothing also takes immense courage”. This answer is uniquely feminine in its strong ability to empathize and understand the complexities of each option — neither is right nor wrong. Women acutely understand all perspectives of these circumstances, which many men fail to comprehend.