The Austin Chronicle

Women Talking

Rated PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Sarah Polley. Starring Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Ben Whishaw, Sheila McCarthy, Judith Ivey, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, Frances McDormand, August Winter, Emily Mitchell.

REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Dec. 23, 2022

The exercise of female self-determination in Women Talking ticks profoundly in a post-Dobbs world in which a woman’s ability to choose her destiny is significantly circumscribed. The film is based on Miriam Toews’ acclaimed 2018 novel, which found its inspiration in a shocking true story about the systemic drugging and raping of women from 2005 until 2009 in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia: not by criminal interlopers, but by men within the sect.

In screenwriter/director Sarah Polley’s compact adaptation of Toews’ book, the setting is somewhat vague. The women’s modest attire of homemade dresses and head coverings, as well as the horse-drawn buggies roaming a remote agrarian landscape, initially suggest an Anabaptist Christian society somewhere in the 19th-century heartland. But the appearance of a census taker’s pickup truck blaring a late-Sixties Monkees song later on, and the occasional vocabulary choice, point to a more contemporary setting. What’s clear from the start, however, is the second-class status of the women in this enclave governed by a conservative religious patriarchy, one that has somehow nurtured the brutal sexual violence against any women in the community over a period of years. While you never get a close look at any of the men who are directly or indirectly responsible for those heinous acts, they’re ever-present in Women Talking, faceless shadows and fleeting figures invisibly lurking in every frame.

The titular discourse takes place in a hayloft over the course of one day, as a small group of nominated women, all directly traumatized by the horror inflicted by their brethren, are tasked to decide whether they should stay and fight, or leave. This debate is largely framed in binary terms, deceptively simple on their face: freedom versus oppression; autonomy versus reconciliation; hope for the unfamiliar good versus hatred of the familiar. Not to diminish the life-or-death matters discussed, but the dynamic of this extended dialogue is not much different from one in a modern-day workplace forum in which a transcribing moderator (here, manifested by Whishaw’s simpatico August) dutifully scribbles down pros and cons on a pad as participants work towards drafting an organizational mission statement or identifying annual goals. It can be a tedious and frustrating process, one in which any hope of progress seems doomed by divergent opinions. But then, at some opportune point, the clouds part and a resolution of some kind is finally reached.

While this may not sound terribly cinematic, Polley keeps things moving at a good pace as the looming deadline creates tension. She periodically interrupts the deliberation with reminders of why this weighty duty must be undertaken, with shots of children innocently playing outside the barn interspersed with sobering flashbacks of dazed women waking up in their beds, mystifyingly covered in blood and bruises.

The quintet of actresses performing the principal roles are strong. Foy and Buckley necessarily dominate because their characters are the loudest, each fueled by a rage borne either from a vindictive need for revenge or hopeless self-loathing. For a while, each of their characters seems trapped in a loop from which she can’t break free, unlike the beatific Mara. But the group’s seasoned elders, played by Ivey and McCarthy, are the characters that stay with you. The two veteran players’ understated performances beautifully ground the film with positive wisdom. Lots of words are said in Women Talking, but when these two speak, you perk up and listen.

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