Women Talking Review: Polley’s Riveting Adaptation Boasts Great Performances

Written and directed by Sarah Polley, who adapts the novel by Miriam Toews, Women Talkingis beautifully captivating and evocative. Elevated by phenomenal performances from its cast, the film tackles a difficult subject with thoughtful sensitivity, levity, and spirited discussion that will leave audiences thinking about the film and its central premise for a long time after it’s over.

After being brutally raped for years — the men of the community used cow tranquilizers to render their victims unconscious — the women of a Mennonite community gather together in a barn to assess what they will do in the aftermath. The men have given them a couple of days to forgive while they’re in town making bail for the attackers. The women must forgive or risk being excommunicated and shunned from Heaven. But forgiveness is not something the women feel they should be forced to give, so they decide they have three choices: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave their community behind forever. The last is the point the women argue about the most as they weigh the pros and cons of potentially leaving the only home they’ve ever known, perhaps understanding that to stay and fight would be futile.


Women Talking is heavy on dialogue, which is what one might expect given the film’s title. The characters have diverse ideas about what they should and shouldn’t do, and their push-pull discussions don’t yield easy answers. Nothing feels straightforward and yet it is, somehow, especially as the conversations (along with the limited time to have them) unearth rage, contemplation, trauma, and understanding. Salome (Claire Foy) is understandably angry, a fiery rage that fuels her thought process throughout the film. Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is cynical, but her strong facade hides the fear of potentially leaving the community with her children despite having an abusive husband. Ona (Rooney Mara), whose rape resulted in pregnancy, is still willing to see the good in things, including a future away from the community. She’s a grounded optimist who is contemplative. The women are also frustrated, angry they were being lied to for so long by the men, made to believe it was the work of the devil that left them bruised and bloody.

The women’s discussions are timely. The story takes its inspiration from a real-life serial rape that occurred in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2009 and, despite the film being set in a Mennonite colony, such conversations continue to be relevant in every community. Polley’s handling of such difficult discussions is dealt with grace, sensitivity, and, yes, humor. These women don’t simply feel the doom and gloom without a little lightheartedness to soften their conversation. The humor is a relief to these characters who have been through horrendous experiences. The performances are outstanding, each actress giving her all in a film that demands different emotions from each character. As the film goes on, the ensemble’s portrayals shed layer after layer, exploring their interiority in a thoughtful manner. Mara’s performance is gentle, while Foy and Buckley’s are more headstrong, though they each convey quiet strength and bravery in various ways. Ben Whishaw as August, the kind-hearted man the women trust to take the minutes of their meeting and who is in love with Ona, is especially earnest and lovely in a heartwarming role.

While Women Talking is quite a beautiful, powerful, and even daunting watch, the monologues could have been cut down. To be sure, they are a showcase for the actors, but they often slice through otherwise spirited, intriguing dialogue and arresting moments between characters, distracting from their camaraderie and relationship building. They’re also moments that make the film feel more like a play, which is not necessary in an otherwise strong adaptation. The cinematography is also incredibly glum. Though it’s perhaps meant to accommodate the tone of the film, it isn’t exactly inspiring.

That aside, Women Talking provides a lot of candor and tackles difficult conversations with aplomb. While the film’s ending feels inevitable, the story reminds its audience that it is an act “of female imagination,” so as to understand such a potent and evocative finale. In a small community where violence has occurred and trust has been broken, the ending becomes all the more powerful. Polley broaches topics that are meant to start discussions, even when they seem impossibly hard, in the hopes that audiences will perhaps do the same with as much grace, humanity, and fire the women in the film showcase.

Women Talking had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 14. The film releases in theaters December 2. It is 104 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images, and some strong language.

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