By Peg Aloi
The film’s trajectory is one of acknowledgment, empowerment, and, ultimately, redemption. Women Talking gives voice to what is often unexpressed: it is a clamorous call to be silent no more.
Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley. Opens at Coolidge Corner Theatre on January 6.
Director Sarah Polley’s latest film is confidently realized at every level and solidifies her status as a filmmaker of deep talent and soaring vision. Adapted by Polley for the screen from the book by Miriam Toews (a fictionalized treatment of the real, and horrifying, events that occurred in a Mennonite community in Bolivia), the novel and screenplay set this story in an unnamed American landscape. It could be northern Pennsylvania, or western New York, or Kansas or Iowa or Minnesota. In Bolivia, over a hundred women and female children (aged five to 65) were drugged and raped by men in their isolated religious community. Eventually, the rapists faced prosecution for their crime; a number were convicted and imprisoned. In Polley’s version, the main action (which unfolds over roughly a 48-hour period) concerns the conversations that took place among the women in the community, many of whom disagreed over what they should do in the wake of the realization that so many of them had been violated.
A number of women gather in a barn. Their meeting begins with the acknowledgment that they have three choices before them. They can do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. It’s immediately clear that some of them will not leave their community (Frances McDormand plays one such detractor), so they won’t take part in the conversation. But most of the women who choose to talk harbor such depths of anger and feelings of betrayal that staying for them feels impossible. The younger women who voice strong feelings include Salome (Claire Foy), whose white-hot rage drove her to attack one of the men violently with a pitchfork. Then there’s Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who stands with the women who want justice. But she is also enmeshed in a physically abusive relationship with her husband, who she knows will punish her for taking part in this conversation. Both of these performances are excellent, but Foy’s emotional clarity makes a stronger impression than Buckley’s guarded self-preservation.
There are two elder women whose stolid presence also emits flickers of anger and rebellion: Agata and Greta (Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy). But they’re reluctant to reveal how they feel, perhaps because of the guilt they feel that their own sons have committed some of this violence. Two teenage girls in attendance, Autje and Neitje (Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil), are restless, seemingly indifferent about the outcome. But, as the conversation continues, they realize their own experiences and responses are central to the future of the community. Another young woman, Nettie, who was raped, chooses to remain silent. Her quiet rebellion takes the form of dressing as a boy and going by the name Melvin. Played by August Winter, this minor role is liminal, and yet compelling in its resonant expression of trauma.
A young male schoolteacher (and failed farmer from the community) is asked to take notes of the meeting because none of the women can read or write. The conceit of Toews’s novel is that this story is being told by a man; the women could not provide their own written chronicle. August, the schoolteacher (played by English actor Ben Whishaw), is deferential and respectful during the long meeting. Still, he manages to draw the ire of some of the women when he speaks out of turn. They point out he is only there to listen, to observe. August has apparently been (chastely) smitten for some time with Ona (Rooney Mara), who is pregnant after she was assaulted. Ona is considered a “spinster” (despite only being in her 30s). She is fascinated, to the point of occasional distraction, by nature’s beauty; she exudes a serene air of calm about her that is mystifying in this atmosphere of rage and pain. She seems disposed to forgive, knowing forgiveness is the path of righteousness embraced by her community. The other women are not so easily convinced that forgiveness is possible, though they too are concerned about the spiritual outcome if they decide to leave. And yet, even with her ingratiating positivity, Ona is a complex character with depth and a solid sense of self. Mara’s performance is intricate, fascinating in its contradictory expressions of acceptance and resistance.
In addition to questions of forgiveness and religious ascension, there are practical matters related to staying, fighting, or leaving. Some of the women doubt they can forgive, if such an action might be required by the community, and fear their safety cannot be guaranteed. They wonder how they will begin again, where they will go. They wonder if they can bring their male children with them if they leave. They wonder if their male children are beyond redemption, given that they were exposed to such intensely misogynistic behavior. It becomes clear that the community’s beliefs and customs are split along gender lines. August quietly records the women’s words; he is aghast at their descriptions of violence but wary of showing any emotion. Whishaw is a fine choice for this impossible role.
Women Talking is a conversation, but a dynamic one. The intellectual elements of the women’s argument pale next to the raw emotion in the air. Polley’s screenplay gives us women who are extremely literate, their speech almost poetic. That might seem odd given their general illiteracy, but there is also a sense that the discourse is intuitive, almost folkloric. They are Everywoman, Everywhere — betrayed by men and hungry for revenge. The barn’s rafters fairly vibrate with their collective anger, pain, and indignation. The majority of the film may be set inside the barn, but there’s a sense of movement. Yet we also witness glimpses of the women’s lives outside the barn — apart from their collective trauma — through the cinematography of Luc Montpellier, who also shot Polley’s Away From Her. The film’s lush visuals capture the rolling golden fields of farmland, wide open skies, and sturdy wooden buildings as evocatively as the bruised and careworn faces of the female protagonists. There is also a stunning percussive score by Hildur Guðnadóttir, melodic and melancholy.
It’s tempting to find parallels to current events and ongoing concerns here, to place this timeless-looking film squarely in the present day. But this is not about supplying a recognizable metaphor. The oppression and abuse of women is as old as time, as common as sunrise, as inevitable as sunset. No doubt many of the movie’s viewers will be survivors of sexual or domestic abuse, and some may find the film traumatizing (though no overt sexual violence is shown). But the film’s trajectory is one of acknowledgment, empowerment, and, ultimately, redemption. Women Talking gives voice to what is often unexpressed: it is a clamorous call to be silent no more.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.