Since the belated #MeToo reckoning of 2016, the otherwise innocuous word pairing of “women” and “talking” has become synonymous with a specific sort of clammy fear for the kind of man who really should have been more scared in the first place. The cathartic toppling of numerous predators in numerous industries has mostly been started by networks of abused women sharing intel, whispers of horrifying men doing horrifying things.
Those whispers are set to become far louder throughout this year’s awards season, later in the year in the aptly named She Said, the narrative adaptation of Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s Weinstein investigation starring Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan, and in Women Talking, an impassioned new drama from actor turned director Sarah Polley, whose own experiences with toxic men have also led her to finally speak out. Her new film is an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, a loose retelling of a spate of grim real-life crimes.
They took place within the isolated Mennonite community of Bolivia at the start of the 2010s, where women of all ages were frequently raped by their husbands, brothers and neighbours, waking up after being drugged with horse tranquilliser, sheets soaked in blood. Polley depicts such barbarity with a careful sensitivity many might have spared, never forcing us to watch the acts but only the aftermath, enough to shock and appall. The men tell the women these incidents are the work of ghosts or of Satan or of wild female imagination but they know better and after grouping together, suspects are arrested and the women, including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and a cameoing Frances McDormand, are forced to make a seemingly impossible choice. They only have a short amount of time before the men are bailed out and so they must decide whether to stay and fight, to try and change the community and its vile, violent misogyny from within or leave and start afresh with the knowledge that they will be excommunicated and may risk entry to heaven in the afterlife.
In the last six years, we’ve heard agonising stories from many different types of women describing insidious sexual abuse but the most publicised have understandably not come from communities as complicated and secretive as this. The Mennonite women we meet have been denied access to even the most informal of education (they cannot read or write) and their cloistered upbringing has also meant that they have neither the vocabulary nor the safety to discuss their bodies or what happens to them, consent or not. It’s “the real horror” they speak of, the silence between what’s happened and what cannot be talked about, and it gives Polley an unusual entry point into a topic that’s slowly become closer to the forefront for many of us. There are hard, haunting questions here without any easy answers: how does someone survive such horror while someone else might not (suicide is mentioned with a bracing frankness), what would liberation even look like to them after they are “free”, how would they know how to define themselves without male influence, is forgiveness permission and has it already been for so long?
The women are of course far smarter and more curious then the men have ever allowed themselves to imagine and their discussions are written with a foundational but unspoken awareness that this isn’t the first hayloft-based chat any of them have had. Little asides have led them to this much bigger place with bigger stakes and it’s refreshing to watch a film such as this, about an isolated and uneducated religious community, not made with a patronising remove (the characters often roll their eyes at the educated who they see as knowing far less than they do). Each woman has also had a distinctly different experience of her own abuse, physically similar perhaps, but how she has chosen to process it remains unique and specific and with such trauma often flattened on screen, it’s rewarding to see a more sharply attuned display of experiences.
It’s all unavoidably stagey, with talky, tense scenes weighing the pros and cons of the decisions, and while Polley does make some attempts to take us outside the barn, to widen the canvas, there’s still an artificiality to some of the construct that makes us wish we were sitting watching this in the theatre instead. It’s partly down to some of the dialogue, which is often electric yet often repetitive with cyclical themes being obviously stated and then restated (something that can often feel less jarring on stage), and also some of the acting which can have a stiff theatricality to it. There’s really strong work here from Foy, recovering from a brief career stumble where she went to Hollywood and came back empty-handed, whose flickering anger burns through the screen and also from Mara and a typically flinty Buckley, but some of the other actors often struggle to lift from the sidelines, such as an awkward, miscast Ben Whishaw as the film’s sole visible male, too many performances reminding us this is a Drama rather than something more nuanced and naturalistic.
The urgency of the ticking clock scenario the women are faced with (the stakes being either life-threatening or life-altering) doesn’t always translate to the film around them, not always searing as painfully as it should, perhaps a result of the pacing or the film’s drab visual palette. Polley’s decision to shoot it all with a muted, color-washed aesthetic is distracting and distancing, as if we’re watching a flashback or maybe a cheaply made vampire show, an odd choice that never once finds justification. But such lifeless visuals can’t fully dampen the women’s hard-edged discussions which frequently hit a compelling tough spot as they talk of the rot of abuse, where it starts and how it can, if it can, ever end. The women aren’t interested in surface judgments but an exploration of how they got here and while the community might be foreign to us in many ways, the lingering damage of hyper-masculinity and how it can infect us all, is far less distant. Everyone is a victim here and while Polley’s attempt to tackle a tough issue isn’t always as polished as it could be, it’ll probably keep a lot of us talking.
Women Talking is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 2 December