This film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival
Writer / director Sarah Polley brings novelist Miriam Toews‘ acclaimed novel to the screen in “Women Talking,” a story that, despite its secluded religious colony setting, has themes that ring true throughout America’s history of antiquated patriarchal systems. It’s a film about the strength of women and their ability to work together despite differing perspectives, opinions, and ideas about faith and life. This is a talky film with difficult subject matter, dialogue, and situations (it’s important to note that while the descriptions are vivid, no scenes of abuse are depicted onscreen), but it’s also a story that is hopeful and empowering.
The film takes place in a Mennonite colony where, after learning that they have been repeatedly drugged with cow anesthetic and raped while unconscious by the men in their colony, a group of women meet in a hayloft to discuss their options. They’ve settled on three: stay and fight, flee, or do nothing. None of the choices are easy, and no one can agree on the right answer to this unrelenting, endless cycle of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
The film is one long conversation about what the women will choose to do as a collective response to the violence they have endured. Some are afraid to leave behind their sons and husbands. Others worry that any act of defiance will prevent them from entering heaven when they die. Their religious leaders have instructed them that if the men ask for forgiveness, it must be given. It’s heartbreaking to watch as many of these mothers, daughters, grandmothers, wives, and sisters debate the difficult and limited options available to them, with their faith playing such a strong role in their decisions.
I loved the film’s dark, vintage look and feel, courtesy of Luc Montpellier’s cinematography. His photography is the perfect complement to the project’s tone, with a muted palette and de-saturated colors that reflect the trauma and emotionally complex nature of the story.
The script is as complex as the performances, and the lead cast (including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, August Winter, and Frances McDormand) is up to the challenge. There’s no clear standout acting-wise, as all of the cast give sophisticated turns. It’s at first confusing to keep each character and their relationships straight, especially since the film jumps right in and you have to be on your toes to keep up. Prior experience with the source material isn’t necessary, but may be helpful.
Polley’s adaptation of the novel doesn’t push boundaries as much as it could’ve, and the film is not quite as gutsy or fearless as some have claimed, but “Women Talking” is a bold statement on the subjugation of women, feminist ideals, and the way a society could be stronger if people would just come together and be willing to listen to each other.
By: Louisa Moore