"Women Talking" makes us question forgiveness, love, justice and faith
Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Michelle McLeod, Frances McDormand, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, August Winter, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown and Vivien Endicott-Douglas. Written and directed by Sarah Polley. Now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox, expands to other theatres next month. 104 minutes. STC
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (out of 4)
The poster for “Women Talking,” Sarah Polley’s remarkable new movie, shows a close-up image of two women standing close together, holding hands.
It speaks to the bonding of the participants in this harrowing tale, based on a 2019 novel by Canadian author Miriam Toews derived from tragic real events: Between 2005 and 2009, female members of a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia became the unconscious prey of male colonists, who repeatedly drugged and raped them as they slept.
There’s another hand gesture, seen midway through the film, that perhaps better expresses the spirit of Polley’s endeavour. It’s a raised fist, aimed toward the sky as a means of celestial navigation using the Southern Cross constellation. In this context, it becomes a classic sign of empowerment: these women are defiantly setting their course on the road ahead, even if they aren’t certain where it leads.
The fist is emblematic of a film that demands much discussion and thought. For her fourth feature, her first in a decade, Toronto writer/director Polley transforms a discursive novel of communal violation into an essential cinematic inquiry about the meaning of forgiveness, love, justice and faith.
“Women Talking,” which is also an ensemble acting triumph, inspires all manner of responses, both on the screen and off. The one that hit me the most was an intense sadness. How could such a situation occur, where supposedly godly men could use the women and girls in their midst as unwilling vessels for sick sexual release?
The question is top of mind for the eight women who have gathered in a hayloft for clandestine meetings to discuss how best to respond to nighttime assaults that happened for years, but until recently — when police were summoned and arrests were made — were dismissed by the colony’s ruling patriarchy as the work of ghosts, demons or simply “female imagination.”
Three generations of women from two families, the Friesens and the Loewens, are present. Agata Friesen (Judith Ivey) is accompanied by her two daughters, Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy), and 16-year-old Neitje (Liv McNeil), a niece of Salome’s. Greta Loewen (Sheila McCarthy), is there with her daughters Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), and granddaughter Autje (Kate Hallett), who is also 16. Ona is pregnant with the child of her unknown attacker.
There is one other person present, the only male in the room: August Epp (Ben Whishaw), a timid schoolteacher who has been asked to keep the minutes of the meetings, since only men in the colony have been taught to read and write.
He’s a former outcast of the colony; his family was banished because “my mother questioned things.” Recently returned, he’s still treated as an outsider but his presence is tolerated because of his writing skills and because of his close friendship with Ona, which he wishes could be more than that.
He has loved her since they were children playing together in the fields of their spartan rural retreat, which cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoots with the sober hues of desaturated colour. Ona, however, views marriage as more of a trap than a joyful undertaking.
There’s a clock ticking on the hayloft meetings. The convicted rapists of the women are in an unnamed city, waiting to return to the colony. Having dealt with the law, they now expect the women to forgive them — and these devout women are being given no choice in the matter, on the pain of excommunication from their faith and denial of entry to heaven.
But the women see themselves as having three options: do nothing; stay and fight the men; or leave the colony and strike out for parts unknown. The hayloft women fall into the latter two camps. (The do-nothing contingent, including a character played in cameo by actor/producer Frances McDormand, decided in an earlier vote of all the colony’s women to accept things as they are.)
Debate rages as the women discuss the ramifications of staying and fighting — how exactly would they fight, given the pacifist central tenet of their faith? — versus simply leaving the colony and searching for a new and safer place to begin life anew.
Ona, the most philosophical member of the group, voices a question that attends either choice: “When we’ve liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.”
There is also the question of what to do with the children. There are many young boys in the colony. Should they leave with the women? What if they grow up to become rapists themselves? (Michael Haneke’s fascism-awakening film “The White Ribbon” comes to mind at this juncture.)
In Toews’ novel, the fight-or-flight discussion takes on a numbing Socratic repetitiveness as the women seek to analyze every last possibility before choosing a course of action.
Polley cuts the debates down to its essentials, and also moves the camera outside the hayloft at points to let air and light into the proceedings; there’s an amusing interlude where a pickup truck blaring the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” reminds everybody that there’s a big, wide world outside the colony, where communal singing of “Nearer My God to Thee” is more the norm. (The other music in the film is the decorous score by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, the recent Oscar winner for “Joker.”)
One thing Polley doesn’t show is the attacks themselves. We see only the awful aftermath as the women wake to discover their bodies violated and their sheets bloodied.
It’s not a stretch to consider how a male Hollywood director might have tried to turn “Women Talking” into a thriller, with scenes of rape followed by righteous retribution.
Polley, as did Toews, opts to leave the horror entirely in the mind, where it will hopefully make a greater impact. No thoughtful person can view “Women Talking” without pondering what we call civilization in the 21st century, where half of the populace too often lives in fear of brutality from the other half. 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)