Film Review: "Women Talking" provides rare look glimpse into horrific conversations
For a male viewer, "Women Talking," is like being allowed into an inner sanctum where men can’t usually go, and as Canadian filmmaker Sarah Polley shows, it’s a place and talk that men may pretend doesn’t exist. Polley based "Women Talking" on a 2018 novel by Miriam Toevs, which in turn was based on actual events at a Mennonite colony in Bolivia in the early 2000s. Men in the colony were drugging and then raping women, and when the women woke up bruised and violated, the men blamed either demons or the women's wild imaginations.
A young woman named Ona (Rooney Mara) in an unnamed, rural religious colony, slowly wakes to see her thighs scratched and bloody, and in a voice-over, she speaks to the child who was just conceived. "This story ends before you were born." It turns out that the rapists are arrested. But then, all the men in the colony leave to post bail, with the warning that by the time they get back in two days, the women must either forgive the rapists or else leave the colony forever.
When their vote proves inconclusive, the women choose a small group to decide for all the women. They give them three possibilities – they can stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. The group gathers in the hayloft of the barn to deliberate. And they allow one young man, August (Ben Whishaw) to take minutes. His parents had been excommunicated, but he’s returned to be a teacher for the boys, and the women trust him, more or less.
"Women Talking" is certainly heavy on dialogue, but it's also a film of striking images. The line of women waiting to vote outside the barn, filmed in desaturated color leaving faint grays, blues and greens, makes them look lonely but determined to figure out where their lives could possibly go. In the hayloft, light shines in through the spaces between the vertical slats. The women arrange seating with hay bales, and the play of light on their faces highlights mood, the movement of their conversation and how their characters differ and shift.
There's a lot at stake in this religious community. First, following the example of Jesus, they wash each other's feet before they talk -- and they believe their very souls may be in peril. Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) and Salome (Claire Foy) start the argument:
It is a part of our faith to forgive. We have always forgiven those who have wronged us. Why not now?
Because now we know better.
We will be excommunicated, forced to leave the colony in disgrace if we do not forgive these men. And if we are excommunicated, we forfeit our place in heaven.
The women talking in the hayloft reject victimhood and take control of their lives, in both a social and a cosmic sense, mixing their rage with profound morality. Salome, full of both fury and moral concern, says that if they stay, they'll become murderers. Earlier, she goes after one of the men with a hand sickle. Other men -- their faces never shown -- pull her away, throw her on the ground and restrain her, so her rage makes sense. And it's clear that the men take no responsibility at all for what they do.
Director Sarah Polley has assembled a fine cast -- besides McDormand, Mara and Foy, there's Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey. The differences in their voices, in tone and rhythm, gives an electric feel to the movie. And besides the range of thinking, there's the deadline. The men are going to return and if the women are going to escape this horror, they've got to make their choice and act. "Women Talking" shows that there’s plenty at stake when women reclaim their lives.