Arts & CultureThe House Reviews

‘Women Talking’ Gives Voice to a Silenced Community

The cast of Women Talking are gathered in hayloft, looking nervously toward a door that is out of frame.
The cast of ‘Women Talking.’ (Courtesy of Hear/Say Productions)

Writer, director, actor, and activist Sarah Polley’s motion picture adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking is about much more than the title implies. Sure, it features women talking about nightmarish abuse brought onto them by the male members of their rigid patriarchal society, but it’s also an allegorical message about power, misinformation, oppression and control. 

There is an overarching theme that men are evil, but #NotAllMen, of course, as elegantly expressed by Ona (Rooney Mara), a young woman recently forced into pregnancy by a man, an alarmingly regular occurrence in this community. 

So, what do you do when you live in a place with a male population made up mostly of rapists, abusers, and oppressors? Do you forgive them, stay and fight, or leave? Those are the questions raised after one man is caught in the act of sexually violating a woman. As seen in flashbacks throughout the film, many of the previous incidents in which women inexplicably wake up with bruises and sometimes blood are credited to the “hands that were no longer there.” 

Before the women have a chance to rip this man apart, the colony’s elders quickly intervene and escort the perpetrator to the nearby secular jail for his protection. While the men are away, the women vote on what should be done, but still a meeting is required to discuss the votes. Women from three prominent families get together in a hayloft and hold a series of meetings in order to come to a final conclusion. 

They have invited a man named August, played sincerely by Ben Whishaw, to join them and take down the minutes of the meeting, since none of the women have been taught to read or write.

Their deliberations are intense, the most passionate of which come from Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) who want to fight — and fight they do, at least verbally, with those who desire to leave. Salome’s hatred for the men in her community consumes her, to the point where she repeatedly castigates August for making simple comments that are meant to be helpful.

Salome’s behavior purveys just how close the men’s behavior has brought her to her limit. She admits this, insisting that if she were to stay she would become a murderer, despite knowing that such an act would prevent her from entering The Kingdom of Heaven. The very thought almost reduces her to tears. 

Many scenarios are raised, points are given, but everything comes back to one thing: the Kingdom of Heaven. These women have been taught that their ultimate goal is to enter the Kingdom after death, and those lessons are carried out in a way that keeps them subservient, making their decision more and more difficult to achieve. 

And yet reaching a decision is simple for one of the women, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), who immediately decides to forgive the man for his crime and excuses herself from further proceedings. 

Fortunately for the ones who struggle, the older women of the bunch, Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey), offer much needed insight and perspective. The younger generation is also represented by three rambunctious girls — played by Liv McNeil, Michelle McLeod and Kate Hallett — who provide some comic relief through their various shenanigans before and occasionally during the women’s gatherings.

In all, there are four assemblies, all of which place in the same location. The women go back and forth, mostly arguing in a way that seems repetitious, but with good intent, reminiscent of the critically acclaimed classic Twelve Angry Men (1957) and the more recent Saint Omer (2022). It is through these assemblies that we learn more and more about each individual and their suffering; we get to know them, their backstories, and why they argue the way they do. 

When the first assembly kicks off, most of the women think in black and white with Ona being the only one that succeeds in taking her emotions out of the equation and presenting the others with a more nuanced picture of their situation. Ona is calm, cool and collected, probably one of the reasons August finds her so appealing. There is an inkling of a love story here, but not one that stems from physical attraction, just two people whose souls attract. 

The bulk of Women Talking feels much like a stage play, and one could argue that it would have played better in that form. Only a handful of scenes take place beyond the hayloft, most of which are the aforementioned flashbacks depicting some unaffiliated defilement.  

We also see occasional scenes of children playing and laughing, there for the purpose of portraying simpler times where the women were carefree; the times before the darkness, when ignorance was bliss. 

But now these women are privy to the oppression they live under, and it’s finally time to say the things they’ve always been too afraid to speak out loud. Communication is key. We really don’t know until we ask and, by these women speaking their minds, something they’ve never done before, they learn that they actually could do something and feel good about it — and perhaps even someday be free.

Women Talking will run through at least Feb. 16 at the Independent Picture House. Read more of Kevin’s reviews here

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