The abused women of a secluded religious cult fight for their freedom in Women Talking
Women Talking is a film by Sarah Polley based on a novel by Miriam Toews. The nearly entirely female ensemble cast includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Frances McDormand. A film about women struggling to claim autonomy over their own bodies in the face of violent and restrictive misogyny, it is no accident that it comes at a time when a wave of attacks on women’s rights are sweeping across the director’s homeland.
A group of women living in ‘the colony’ (a religious sect reminiscent of the Pennsylvania Dutch or the Amish) debate what to do in the wake of a horrifying, life long series of sexually violent attacks on them from the male members of their community. After rising up and having the men responsible arrested, the elders of the community tell them they must forgive and forget. Unwilling to do this, the matriarchs of the colony meet to decide between two fates: fighting back and ejecting the men, or leaving the community and being excommunicated from the church.
Women Talking is not a subtle film, plunging right from the opening moments into quite harrowing scenes of the aftermath of sexual violence – it seeks to bring these crimes out of the shadows and into the open. The women meeting understandably have wildly different views on what to do to combat it, and are all suffering from differing, complex trauma responses. Where some are inspired to violence and are ready to murder the guilty if necessary; others would rather flee, while some still are too afraid to leave and face living on their own.
Women Talking is practically a chamber piece, outside of a few short scenes it is entirely set in the hayloft of a barn where the group spend a full day and night debating what to do. It has a drab, desaturated colour palette that Polley claims she used to indicate ‘’a world that has faded into the past.’’ Its singular focus is on discourse and in giving a voice to its previously silenced characters. It never shows explicitly what has happened to them, though a series of flashbacks show the aftermath.
The discourse itself is nuanced, timely and a little on the nose – many lines feeling like they could have been taken from tweets or be seen splashed across protest signs outside the White House. Each character has good reason to fight for their viewpoint even when they are contradictory, the hopelessness and difficulty of their situation emphasised by the fact that none of them have the skills necessary to survive in the modern world. The women cannot read or write having not been allowed to go to school, they own no property, cannot drive and have never even seen the land outside their own community.
It’s an excellent script from Polley who allows desperation and frustration to ebb and flow throughout the different members of the group as a subtle sense of tension builds throughout the film, the constant fear of the men returning hangs like a spectre over the group. Standout performances belong to Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley – Foy’s Salome boiling with rage yet bleeding vulnerability as she fights to protect her children. Buckley’s character, Mariche, battered but terribly hostile. Ben Whishaw is also his usual emotive, brilliant self playing August, the only man on the women’s side.
The only character I had issue with was Rooney Mara’s Ona – the level headed, philosophical one of the group who attempts to mediate. It seems mad that I am saying this regarding such a woman led film but she felt like a bit of a Mary Sue – incredibly knowledgeable despite supposedly not having had an education, even tempered while talking calmly of forgiveness and looking beautiful and pristine at all times. She is brilliantly performed by Mara, just by far the least interesting character, her insuffienct backstory a weak spot in a script that otherwise has excellent characterisation.
Given the subject matter and the bravely stripped back nature of this cast of excellent actors, I and many others will surely be hedging our bets on Women Talking popping up everywhere in awards season lists come the new year. A disturbing, arresting, vital film, Women Talking packs a serious emotional punch.
Women Talking has been reviewed as part of the BFI London Film Festival. It is currently scheduled for UK cinema release on 10th February 2023