It’s hard to think of a director better suited to helm such an important film about women and their choices than Sarah Polley. Based on Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, “Women Talking”, which was branded a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review, Polley’s movie of the same name brings together an ensemble of phenomenal female actors.
WOMEN TALKING isn’t addressing a new problem. Women all over the world are forced into submission every day by the men in their lives. Toews’ story addresses a group of Mennonite women struggling with the dilemma of repeated abuse at the hands of the men in their community. These women face a trio of choices --- do nothing, stay and fight or leave.
All of this takes place as the clock is ticking. Male members were arrested by the police and the rest of the men, except for August Epp (Ben Whishaw), have gone into the city to post bail. Now over 100 women must vote to determine their fate and they only have 24 hours to decide.
Out of the larger group a smaller one comes together in the barn loft to hash out their future --- whatever that may be. Agata (Judith Ivey), the eldest of this faction, her two daughters, Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy) and Salome’s niece, Neitje (Liv McNeil) are present. Greta (Sheila McCarthy), another elder, and her two daughters, Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), along with Mariche’s daughter, Autje (Kate Hallett), comprise the rest of this smaller group.
A third family is also asked to join initially, but the matriarch, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), is opposed to anything other than staying and doing nothing. So, she and her daughter Anna (Kira Guloien) and her granddaughter Helena (Shayla Brown) leave. Scarface is fearful of excommunication --- and change --- which leads her to believe that the men must be forgiven.
For Ona, Salome and Mariche that choice is untenable. Though these three don’t agree at first on a solution, they know that something must change. For years, the women in this colony have been drugged and assaulted, waking up with bruises and other signs of being attacked. But the men continue to discount their stories, claiming these episodes are only their imaginations --- or even worse --- sins they committed themselves.
With all the men gone, it’s now or never if they choose to leave --- an option which becomes the clearer choice as the discussions continue. August is prevailed upon to take the minutes of these meetings so there will be a record of this momentous decision.
He is the schoolteacher for the boys, and since girls are not permitted to attend school, none of the women can read or write. And though everyone knows August is madly in love with Ona, she is determined to never marry --- and strongly believes the women must strike out on their own, no matter the consequences.
WOMEN TALKING is a lot of talking --- yes. But it is all meaningful and relevant to what is still going on in the world today. Most cultures cannot seem to move on from male domination, so listening to these female voices ferret out the only suitable option is vastly compelling. Polley’s screenplay is brilliant --- the writing is crisp and informative with not a single wasted word.
And WOMEN TALKING isn’t just for women. It’s a powerful declaration regarding the need for change. As it turns out, this colony of Mennonite women is no longer concerned for themselves. Instead, they fear for their daughters --- and their young sons, whom they don’t want to see grow up like their fathers. It’s the one sure way to break the cycle of abuse by teaching boys from an early age to respect girls --- respect everyone --- and treat them justly.
Of course, with all the “talking”, a stellar cast is imperative. Polley has chosen wisely. Mara, Foy and Buckley are exceptional. These three, along with Ivey and McCarthy carry the film --- and their performances ring incredibly true. These accomplished females have formed an exquisite synergy that allows each to shine alone --- and then as a small-scale masterclass. WOMEN TALKING is a tour de force for women --- and a must-see for men.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
How is it that a film comprised of women conversing amongst themselves in a hayloft for most of the movie’s running time can be so effective, addictive and startling? The answer is the running theme of Jeanne’s reviews --- the writing.
Most of the stunning story of WOMEN TALKING was shot in a studio mock-up of a hayloft in a barn while other interior scenes and some exterior shots were filmed in a real barn on a farm outside Toronto.
Writer/director Sarah Polley adapted her script for WOMEN TALKING from the 2018 novel “Women Talking” by Miriam Toews. Both women are from Toronto. Toews’ book was named a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review.
The group of eight women and one mute transgender person are part of a Mennonite colony that outwardly appears to be of a much older vintage, but census takers for 2010 arrive at the farm which clarifies that perception. The women are discussing how to handle their mistreatment by the men of the colony which include sexual assaults and severe beatings.
Some of the men had been arrested and taken into town just before the women assembled, and they are due back at the colony in 24 hours. The women’s task is clear and must be finalized before the men return.
Their debate centers around three questions. Do they do nothing? Do they fight back? Do they simply leave? The women are all illiterate, never having attended school per the policy of the men. So how could they fare in a world that demands at least some education? And what about their strong religious beliefs? It’s obviously a complicated dilemma. But the presentation of their story in Polley’s deft hands is astonishing.
Leading the debate are Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley). The women have plenty to think and talk about and precious little time to do so. But they even have time to share raucous laughter at one point. The women turn to one man, the boys’ schoolteacher, August (Ben Whishaw), to record the notes of the meeting. August is a gentle soul not respected by the men. He’s also in love with Ona.
All the performances are mesmerizing including the actresses not named here. But Mara, Foy and particularly Buckley are extraordinary and completely credible. Whishaw is quietly compelling in his turn as the one male the women trust and respect.
Although Polley considered shooting WOMEN TALKING in black-and-white, ultimately it was filmed in a muted color palette so the film would not appear “too bleak”. The bottom line is that WOMEN TALKING should be seen by every serious moviegoer, regardless of gender. The underlying theme in Toews’ novel and Polley’s adaptation is that women can only take so much abuse before they openly rebel. As a male film reviewer, I take pride in highly recommending this movie.
WOMEN TALKING started with Frances McDormand reading the book. She bought the movie rights and together with noted producer Dede Gardner, co-president of Brad Pitt’s company Plan B, WOMEN TALKING was born. Pitt also executive produced. As for McDormand, she has a limited role as Scarface Janz who opts out of the main discussions because she doesn’t want to be excommunicated and essentially prefers the status quo. This makes for a more realistic scenario as opposed to all the women being on the same page.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!