In 2011, eight men were convicted of committing sexual assault on the women of their Mennonite colony in Bolivia. These assaults have been happening for years, and the men of the colony dismissed the women who came forward. Leaders of the colony deemed the assaults the work of the devil or “wild female imagination.” These events became the subject of the 2018 novel Women Talking by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which has now been adapted onscreen by Canadian director Sarah Polley.
Nearly identical to the events in Bolivia, Women Talking centers on the aftermath of the assaults. Most of the men in the colony are out to get parole for those caught. Three choices are up for debate: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Women from three families represent each choice. The majority agreed that doing nothing is not a viable option, two families are left to discuss the pros and cons of the remaining options.
From the title itself, it is clear that the audience expects the women to talk. A very dialogue-heavy film in the wrong hands could have been a forgettable drama. It is in danger of delivering an exposition-heavy film; just telling, not showing. The medium of film was not built for such. People could argue that a stage adaptation would have sufficed the novel. However, Sarah Polley adapting the screenplay and directing the film saved it from these dangers.
With the film’s sensitive topic, Polley delivered the adaptation with such care. The assaults are never shown onscreen. They display the outcome of these assaults in rattling cutscenes where the women wake up to the horrors of the assault, bruised and bleeding. Some critics might call this a #MeToo flick, and it feels like a mockery to call it such, especially by male critics. To undermine it as another byproduct of this reckoning of the culture of misogyny in the industry feels belittling.
An ensemble film, Women Talking does not run out of excellent performances. The fiery Salome (Claire Foy), whose four-year-old daughter is also a victim of the assaults, delivers scorching monologues as she wants to stay and fight the men that touched her daughter. A devastating Mariche (Jessie Buckley) plays devil’s advocate in these discussions as she endures her husband’s abuse, hoping to stay with him. Then there is August (Ben Whishaw), who brings gentleness and kindness onscreen as the only man present during the discussions, taking the minutes for the illiterate women.
Scarface Janz, played by Frances McDormand who also serves as the producer, represents the “do nothing” women. She and her family decide not to partake in the discussions. McDormand always gives something special onscreen. Her sparse appearance left me wanting more. Along with McDormand, the actresses who played her daughter (Kira Guloien) and granddaughter (Shayla Brown) left an impression onscreen even though they are given little to do.
Other than the performances, there is the harrowing score of Hildur Guðnadóttir which permeates when it plays. The desaturated color of the film wasn’t working for me as it looks dreadful and digitized. But it is a bold choice from Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier; there is this certain discomfort in the visuals which relays back to what happened to the women of the colony.
Women Talking is one of the most important films to come out this year, accompanied by tour de force performances. Don’t be surprised if this scores Polley her second Adapted Screenplay nomination and her first Director nomination, plus nominations from the cast, especially Buckley and Foy.