In Sarah Polley’s sobering adaptation of Miriam Toew’s 2018 novel Women Talking she shows what happens when women who have never been given a voice must use it to determine their future and, ultimately, their survival.
Women Talking is a fictionalised retelling of real events that took place in the religious community of Mennonite, in Bolivia, where women were constantly drugged and raped in their sleep. The women were led to believe that it was the work of Satan or just their imagination. However, after one of the men of the community is caught, the reality of the atrocities come to light. The men are taken away “for their own safety”, leaving the women of the community just under 48 hours to make the decision: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.
The simplicity of the plot relies heavily on the impressive abilities of the cast which make for an inspiring multigenerational ensemble. Claire Foy (The Crown, Breathe) plays the fiery Salome whose anger emanates off the screen. Her years of abuse are clear and with the future of her young daughter in mind, she has all the ammunition she needs to fight.
However, Ona (Rooney Mara), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Mejal (Michelle McLeod) are not so determined in their decision. The discussion around duty and consent that makes up the greater part of the film is intense and powerful. Polley portrays the difficulty of such a life-altering decision. Frances McDormand’s character, Scarface Janz, plays a small but imposing figure in the film who refuses to even take part in the discussion.
Despite the traumatic subject of Women Talking, there are no graphic scenes of sexual assault. It is only briefly established through shots of the women waking up covered in bruises and blood. This draws the focus of the film away from only the women’s trauma, though it is handled carefully, and centres it around their survival.
Religion is heavily questioned since most of women are concerned with whether they will be forgiven in the afterlife if they leave. They must also contend with the fact that the elders, who they appeal to in order to be let into heaven, are the very men who have been raping them. However, religion also brings the women closer together as they join in prayer even when they are at their most disbanded.
The children of the community play a focal point in the film as they are the legacy to protect. Shots of them happily playing in the fields break up the intensity of the film. Autje (Kate Hallett) narrates the film and addresses it to Ona’s unborn child – a product of rape. The novel was originally narrated by August (Ben Whishaw) who is employed to take the minutes of the women’s meeting since women of the community are unable to read or write. By having Autje narrate, it reminds the audience of who this film is for. She addresses the baby at the start saying: “We had 24 hours to decide what kind of world you would be born into”.
A vivid picture of the community that is rural and charming is created. Establishing shots of the houses and barns show a seemingly idyllic setting that provides an interesting contrast to the grueling discussion taking place. Women Talking is also not completely without its light-hearted moments. Autje and Nietje (Liv McNeil), the younger members of the group, show the simplicity of female friendship as they braid their hair together. Scenes between Ona and August, whose sweet and tender love for each other, provide a hopeful tone to the film.
The intensity of the discussion raises countless questions that make Women Talking a deeply confrontational film. Especially in our current climate where allegations against abusers in Hollywood never seem to stop, this film is uniquely placed to address the more difficult questions.