Women speak with power

Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel a harrowing, humane look at systems that perpetuate violence


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When women in an isolated traditional Mennonite colony find themselves waking up groggy and in pain, sometimes covered in bruises and blood, they are told by the community’s male elders that this could be the work of Satan or a punishment from God. Or perhaps these are just figments of “female imagination.”

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When women in an isolated traditional Mennonite colony find themselves waking up groggy and in pain, sometimes covered in bruises and blood, they are told by the community’s male elders that this could be the work of Satan or a punishment from God. Or perhaps these are just figments of “female imagination.”


Women Talking

Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand

Cineplex Odeon, Landmark Cinemas (Jan. 26)

Running time: 104 minutes

Rated: PG

★★★★ out of five

Adapting Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, Toronto-based filmmaker Sarah Polley follows the Manitoba-born writer in reclaiming the power of female imagination in a harrowing, humane and difficult film.

The phrase “women talking” is often used dismissively to suggest idle nattering, frivolous gossip. Polley uses a dialogue-driven screenplay to explore the potency of words and language.

She’s aided by an exceptional ensemble cast, which includes big names like Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley, along with notable Canadian actors Sheila McCarthy and Michelle McLeod and veteran stage performer Judith Ivey. Polley, a former child star who has since moved to the other side of the camera (Away From Her, Stories We Tell), is an actors’ director, and it shows.

United Artists / Entertainment Pictures

From left, Michelle McLeod as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in Women Talking.

Based on a true-life 2009 case in Bolivia in which girls and women from age three to 65 were drugged with animal tranquilizers, then sexually assaulted and brutalized by men of their colony, Women Talking imagines an unusual conclave, as two families of women spanning three generations come together in a dusty, dark hayloft to decide what to do. (If questioned, they plan to say they’re quilting.)

The setup is necessarily contained and compressed, both spatially and temporally. Several men have been arrested by the local police, and the other men have gone into town to post their bail, leaving the women and children temporarily alone. Now the women have only a short time to make a choice — do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.

For a scenario that relies so much on the power of women’s words, there is a certain irony here: Because the women are illiterate, the minutes of the meeting must be taken by a man, the softspoken August (Ben Wishaw), who’s from an excommunicated family and is considered by many “a failed farmer and two-bit teacher.”

For the women, including the fierce Salome (Foy), the embittered and angry Marieke (Buckley), and the dreamy, serene Ona (Mara), the implications of their decision are almost unfathomably huge. They have never asked their men for anything, “not even for the salt to be passed,” and now they are imagining a revolution.

The possibility of leaving has practical implications. They would be protecting their daughters while leaving behind sons and brothers. They would be venturing into a wider world they have never experienced, whose reach is sometimes briefly framed through the hayloft’s window as a distant horizon.

And it’s not just that they would be leaving the only earthly home they’ve known. The tenets of their faith requires them to forgive their transgressors, and some of the women worry they could be forsaking the kingdom of heaven.

Other Voices

The root of Protestantism, after all, is protest — against arbitrary and unaccountable authority in the name of a higher truth. Women Talking reawakens that idea and applies it, with precision and passion, to our own time and circumstances. The women don’t want pity or revenge. They want a better world. Why not listen?

— A.O. Scott, New York Times

The women in Bolivia were heroic for coming forward to testify against their rapists (men they knew) in court, and in so doing they broke with every tradition they knew. They put themselves “beyond the pale” of their own conditioning and told their stories in front of the world. Their act took tremendous courage. Toews’ made-up debate seems like an intellectual exercise in comparison.

— Sheila O’Malley,

That (Miriam) Toews’ novel was based on actual incidents in Bolivia, makes Women Talking all the more harrowing, but frankly, it doesn’t need the help. Anyone clear-eyed about the world today will recognize the truths that these women are talking.

— Bob Mondello, NPR

It’s important to note that Polley is not making an argument for or against religion. The women’s issues are not with God but with power misused in God’s name. Steadfast in their faith, the women struggle sincerely with the nature of true forgiveness and the meaning of genuine pacifism.

If this sounds like heavy going, well, it is, and there are a few points where you might sympathize with the two fidgety young girls (Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil) who are observing their elders and at one point complain loudly that “this is very, very boring.”

But amidst the emotional trauma and ethical seriousness, Polley manages some odd moments of hope, even humour. Observing the women stuck on the same points as time threatens to run out, Agata (Ivey), one of Toews’s typically plainspoken matriarchs, cries out: “For the love of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, shut your pieholes!”

As a young actor, Polley herself experienced some of the abuses that are now being exposed in the entertainment industry (recounted in her recent autobiography, Run Towards the Danger). Women Talking, with its predominantly female cast and crew, in some ways reads as an allegorical story for the #MeToo era.

Concentrating on women’s faces, women’s voices, Polley’s work is stylized, simplified, stripped down, sometimes even a little stiff. While rooted in a particular event, the film looks at the systems — wherever and whenever they are — that perpetuate violence.

This is not an easy film. In the grey half-light of the hayloft, it takes some time for the women’s personalities and positions to come into focus. But when they do, Women Talking is absolutely charged with emotional power — not sudden, not obvious but quiet, cumulative and lingering.

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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