Since the #MeToo movement, many women have come forward to reveal unflattering details about the abuse they have endured and suffered from, which has been covered up for years by many institutions and individuals. Women Talking, Sarah Polley’s fourth feature film (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, Stories We Tell), delivers these potent insights into a small group of abused women within a remote Mennonite colony in the South American country of Bolivia, indignantly revealing the brutal mistreatment they suffered through their own accounts and those of a few brave women who wrangle up plans to flee the abuse. This is a substantial and emotionally moving film that demonstrates Polley’s considerable talent. She has crafted a deft, uncompromising portrait of hope and survival.
Adapted from the 2018 novel of the same name by Miram Towes, Women Talking chronicles the real-life experiences the women went through during 2005–2009. Many women were viciously attacked, beaten, and raped by men, and the mostly drunken attackers would use sedatives to knock them out so they could sleep in their beds while the atrocities occurred. Polley’s adaptation uses these events through fictionalized characters and a time period of the 19th century, as she uses mostly a one setting chamber piece about a small group of women who share their brutal experiences and brainstorm solutions for how to escape the colony as they hold subsequent meetings on the top of a barn shed that overlooks a beautiful vista with illuminating sunsets.
The film is adapted by Polley, and this marks the second feature she has written and adapted, the other being her 2007 indie sensation Away from Her. always, and the film does exactly what the title suggests. The film opens with some scenes outside the barn that establish the female characters’ work, and the camera observes them walking in the village and fields. From there, most of the action takes place in the barn, with some flashbacks and a few breaks of the women walking in crop fields in ravishing shots that echo the work of Terrence Malick. Structurally, the film is mostly verbose with just one-setting that feels more in the vein of Robert Altman’s 80s chamber pieces that were often based on stage plays. Mostly a long conversation that takes place over the course of just a few days, the women often argue, contemplate, debate, and eventually find consensus on where they want to resettle. Some women have no choice but to leave because their lives depend on it, while others want to stay and fight.
The performances in this film are uniformly strong, led by one of the most skillful ensemble casts we’ve seen from 2022. The women characters that emerge in the narrative include Mariche (Jesse Buckley), who is very angry and determined to get out, and she is the most abused woman who fears for the safety of her children; Salome (Claire Foy), who is the most outraged of the women because her daughter was abused, and she holds fierce debates with Mejal (Michelle McLeod) on the Christian principle of forgiving others, but Salome has sown doubts on forgiving others due to the heinous attack her daughter endured; and Ona (Rooney Mara), who is very firm in her opinions, but is the most diplomatic and pragmatic voice in the group. The most compelling aspect of Women Talking is how few incidents are talked about. These women are traumatized, but they don’t want to relive the trauma by discussing, they want to escape it. The women discuss the opportunity costs of escaping, as well as the aftermath of their survival, and the logistics they face once they depart. We’re also introduced to Melvin (August Winter), a nonbinary character who is also mute, and a male ally, August (Ben Whinsaw)—the village schoolteacher who develops a love interest with Ona. The scenes between Mara and Winshaw are very delicate, as are the rest of the emotions and exchanges that take place in the barn.
Finally, Women Talking does not delve deeply into matriarchal society’s solution ideas, perhaps because it is more of a narrative about hope, traumatic healing, and survival. It is more focused on assuring the target audience’s progressive ideals. Regardless, there are still a great number of conjectures about Polley’s idealism and vision that will generate ideas and discussions about how women and individuals can turn the tide of an oppressive society. Polley manages to craft an affecting, absorbing, and deeply empathetic film out of a lofty book and a first-rate cast of so many great performers.