Chilling conversation Women Talking evokes rage, humour and hope with its powerful script, brilliant acting
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Difficult, harrowing, poignant, enraging, sometimes funny, maybe even hopeful: Women Talking, Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name, stirs a variety of emotions.
It’s also a talker.
Both the novel and the film are based on the true-life events of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia where the men were drugging and assaulting the women at night and then gaslighting them, saying it was ghosts, Satan, or “wild female imagination.”
In Women Talking, the colony’s brutalized women — played by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Judith Ivey — decamp to a hayloft where they must decide what to do: stay and fight, or leave the only world they’ve ever known. Because the women are illiterate, the gentle August (Ben Wishaw) takes the minutes of their surreptitious meetings.
The Free Press’s Shelley Cook, AV Kitching, Eva Wasney and Jen Zoratti got together, minus the hayloft, to discuss the film. What follows is women talking about Women Talking. (Some minor spoilers ahead.)
JZ: First impressions. How familiar was everyone with the source material? I’m a huge Miriam Toews fan; I’ve read every single one of her books, including Women Talking. I’m also a huge Sarah Polley fan. So, I knew going in that I would probably love this film. How about the rest of the team?
EW: I didn’t read the book. I was kind of familiar with the events that it was based on, the sexual assaults that happened in Bolivia. That was kind of the extent of my knowledge base.
AK: I went in blind. Not familiar with the book, not familiar with the events, didn’t know who the director was. I didn’t even know about Mennonites until I came to Canada.
SC: Yeah, I went in blind too. I hadn’t even actually heard of the movie until AV asked me to go. I don’t really go to movies, unless they’re kid movies these days. Based on the little bit that (AV) told me, I thought that it was going to be really boring. But I enjoyed myself a lot. I really thought it was a nice film. I thought it was beautifully shot. And really interesting.
JZ: One of the things that I was really knocked out by was the fact that this is a film where it’s women talking in a hayloft for an hour and 44 minutes, and I was on the edge of my frickin’ seat. I was so riveted by these conversations. The tension!
EW: I felt the exact same way. Being in the hayloft basically the entire time, you don’t get a lot of glimpses at the rest of the colony and outside world. But I thought that was so powerful, because it really focuses on the content of what’s being said. Every line is just so powerful and pertinent to the conversation that they’re having, and this insanely difficult decision that they’re making.
SC: You’re right, but then you get little glimpses into their personalities through the hair braiding, and the two girls kind of giggling off in the corner, and the drawing, and the smoking. Or Ruth and Cheryl, the horses.
EW: Ruth and Cheryl need their own movie.
AK: I wasn’t expecting the humour, actually. And I wasn’t expecting to relate to these women’s experiences. I came away from it really missing my friends, my female friends, because you see the beauty of female friendships and how it’s rooted in something almost spiritual, right? But it’s not religious, it’s a spiritual relationship that they all have together. A sisterhood almost. When one of them was in pain they all sat together. It reminded me of my friendships with my female friends and how we just come together.
JZ: Humour is a big part of Miriam Toews’ work, and I think she’s really a master in finding the funny in a tragedy, because nothing is ever just one thing — and I think we need those release valves to be able to bear it. I thought Sarah Polley’s screenplay captured that spirit really well. But AV, totally spot on: and they were hard on each other too because they don’t all agree, and they get really frustrated with each other. They called each other out when needed. Their love was tough sometimes.
AV: No BS. But then they came back together. It was so beautifully done. They really were good actresses because I believed in those relationships.
EW: The casting was just immaculate. Everyone did such a good job and fit all the roles so well. And talking about the relationships and the community, you get the sense they’ve really grown up together, they know each other, all these people are so interconnected in so many ways. And life is continuing on while this decision is being made, they have to break to do chores while they’re having this conversation. That was a really interesting piece of it: they’re still reliant on each other, despite having this tension of not necessarily being on the same page about whether to stay or leave.
JZ: I also thought it was a really interesting portrait of women’s knowledge, lived experience, and different ways of knowing. I mean, these are women who are illiterate. They cannot write, they cannot read. And yet, they are so well spoken and insightful about their situation and the systems they’re in.
EW: One scene that really stuck in my brain was Ona’s (Rooney Mara) mother talks about the fact that they’ve never asked anything of the men in their lives — “not even for the salt to be passed.” That, I think, really pulls their understanding of their social standing into perspective.
AV: When did this happen, the incident in Bolivia?
JZ: I thought the scene where the truck passed through asking them to come out and be counted for the 2010 census was brilliantly jarring. Like, oh wait, this isn’t an old story. This is current. I also appreciate how the violence was handled. We never see the men, the actual acts of brutalization. We only see the aftermath, the bloodied sheets, which I felt was more evocative.
Speaking of men, how did we feel about August?
AV: I felt really aghast at the fact that he was in love, clearly, with Ona the entire time. And I thought, right till the end, because I’d never read the book, that he would go with them. Of course, you realize that, no, it’s his job to stay.
JZ: Absolutely. I think August can be a different model of what it means to be a man for the boys of the colony, a different model of masculinity. I did bristle initially at the fact that they needed a man to get their story down on paper because they were never taught to read or write or look at a map. But August is a gentle soul who understands his place.
EW: I’m curious how everyone else felt leaving the theatre. Honestly, I was absolutely devastated, just weeping in my car all the way home. Where we’re at, in so many places in the world, in regards to women’s rights and how they’re being rolled back in the States, and what’s happening in Afghanistan under Taliban rule — it just hit me so hard. I had a really hard time processing it.
(The film) is a feel good-ish story for the women — they made a decision. They got out. But there was no exodus of women from the colony in Bolivia. And so, this fight for any kind of modicum of power continues. And it’s only in fiction, after something absolutely horrendous happens, that we can see women achieving their right to even bodily autonomy.
AK: It just reminded me that this shit still goes on. You draw parallels to Afghanistan in the States. This could be happening, although on a lesser scale, next door. Right? It could be as simple as a man not doing the washing up and expecting his wife to do all the dishes. It just brought it home; I don’t even know what we can do. It made me very depressed.
Shelley said something in the car about the four-year-old girl, Miep. Do you remember?
SC: I didn’t realize, in the beginning, what had happened to her. I thought that was a side plot where she was just sick. I think because I have kids, I just, I can’t… my mind can’t automatically go there. And so when it finally clicked what had happened to that child, it really changed the movie for me while I was in it.
AK: I think it was done deliberately, that dawning realization as the film went on, that this is what happened. The youngest, most vulnerable of them — there was no difference. I think the way they paced it was actually incredibly clever, because it makes your skin crawl right at the end when you’re like ‘(expletive).’
SC: The women said something along the lines that they didn’t want the door of heaven slammed shut on them. So now you’re faced with this choice of like, eternal damnation if you kind of do any action and like protecting your family, yourselves and your kids. It’s so complicated and so terrifying.
‘It’s so complicated and so terrifying’
I grew up in a religious home, not a Mennonite home, but I grew up in a religious home, I remember spending many nights a child in my bed afraid that God was going to come and afraid of damnation. So I know that fear that they have of a door to heaven being slammed shut. And the fact that they had to face these really real, horrible things that had happened to them and their families while reconciling with the fact that if they do take action, the door to heaven could be slammed shut — I think that triggered me quite a bit, if I’m being honest. It made me mad. I didn’t leave crying, I left a little bit mad.
AK: Did you cry at any point, Jen?
JZ: I did. But — and I cannot believe I’m saying this — I left the theatre feeling hopeful. I thought it was such a moving example of what happens when women work together, and when they actually talk about their suffering. So often, women’s stories are dismissed and silenced. Even the idea of “women talking” — it’s idle gossip, it’s “hens clucking” — even though so-called whisper networks of women have literally allowed us to save each other’s lives. I thought they reclaimed this idea of “wild female imagination”; the book and film are acts of female imagination, the women choosing to leave was radical act of female imagination, too. That this film could get an Oscar nomination — though not for best director, I’ll note — and have a packed opening night screening shows that there’s an appetite for women’s stories told at this level.
SC: I think what’s really important is that it’s not just a women’s movie, though. I think it’s probably going to be pegged as a “women’s movie,” but men should see it, too. Maybe men need to be in on the conversation.
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AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.
Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley is a born and raised Winnipegger. She is a proud member of the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation.