At the start of Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, we get a bold declaration on screen: ‘What follows is an act of female imagination.’ The words set the tone for the powerful exploration of anger, endurance and forgiveness that follows.
A group of women from an implied Mennonite colony, from the elderly to the girls, meet at the crack of dawn to discuss one issue: what to do about the men who have been systematically drugging them and raping them in their sleep?
The film is adapted from Canadian writer Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, which was itself inspired by the real-life case of eight women in the ultra-conservative Manitoba Colony in Bolivia who sued the men in their community for serially raping its female members.
There are multiple shades of female rage on display in Toews and Polley’s script: the noxious anger of Salome (Claire Foy), who’s ready to fight; the philosophical Ona (Rooney Mara), who’s willing to forgive their assailants; and the spiky Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who sees no solution that doesn’t involve sacrificing their godliness. The tone is sombre. The horrifying threat of excommunication hangs over them all. The conversations ripple with fury as the women build towards a vote. Doing nothing is discarded as an option. But should they stay, forced to either forgive or fight their rapists, or risk everything by leaving?
It imagines female emancipation as an honest, raging, caring experience
The women, according to the rules of their colony, have never been taught to read or write, so school teacher August (Ben Whishaw) is taking the minutes. He is the sole male presence in the room, unthreatening by default. He represents the imagined ideal of men actually listening to women. (Regrettably, he is also used to force-feed us a romantic subplot and a cringey delivery of the ‘not all men’ speech.)
Both the one-room setting and Polley’s direction give Women Talking an overpoweringly theatrical feel, though not in an extrovert, Baz Luhrmann sense. On the contrary, it’s grim and desaturated, as if any aesthetic flourishes might distract from the performances or the discussion itself, or render the film glib. The women’s words, their virulent delivery and the depth of the questions asked have an almost paralysing effect, broken up only by scenes of teenage girls mucking around and a bizarre ‘Daydream Believer’ needle drop. Women Talking imagines female emancipation as an honest, raging, caring experience.
In US theaters Dec 23 and UK cinemas Feb 10, 2023