Skip to main content
film review

Left to right: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod and Jessie Buckley in Women Talking.Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing

  • Women Talking
  • Directed by Sarah Polley
  • Written by Miriam Toews and Sarah Polley, based on the novel by Miriam Toews
  • Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley
  • Classification PG
  • 104 minutes

“What follows is an act of female imagination.” With this affirmation, so begin the opening scenes of Canadian writer-director Sarah Polley’s latest feature, Women Talking. Adapted from Manitoba-born author Miriam Toews’s celebrated novel of the same name, Polley’s onscreen reworking bears witness to a group of Mennonite women working through being drugged and sexually assaulted for years by the men of their isolated colony.

Women Talking is loosely based on real-life events that occurred during the 2000s within the Manitoba Colony – an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia – wherein women and girls were systematically violated by a group of men from their own community. Using an animal anesthetic to incapacitate their victims, these men blamed the violence on the machinations of the so-called “wild female imagination,” as well as the work of demons or other spectral figures.

It was a doubled gaslighting in which these women and girls were unable to remember what had happened to them and also unable to trust their own experiences of its aftermath. With Women Talking, we are presented with the reality, however fictionalized, of what follows once the full truth of such violence is confirmed.

For the women who we see onscreen, their options are limited: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. What both Polley and Toews centre on is the intricacies of this collective decision-making. In this vein, Women Talking feels like an extended thought experiment with very real stakes – it is undoubtedly relevant to the continuing and necessary conversations regarding gendered violence and the social structures that both allow for it and enable it in the real world.

Left to right: Emily Mitchell, Claire Foy and Rooney Mara in Women Talking.Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing

Refused access to any sort of formal education, the women here grapple with not only questions of forgiveness, accountability, vengeance and harm, but also the fact that they are in the midst of shaping the very language needed to talk about their experiences for the first time. With this comes the need to distinguish the purpose and function of the previously uninterrogated structures around them: What is the word of God, and what is the word of men of God who are masquerading as such? What is forgiveness, and what is only permission working within the guise of the former?

One of Women Talking’s best features is its ability to parse out language in a way that points to its intentional violence as well as its capacity – through collective criticism and reflection – to be retooled as a means for self-determination. It is this alchemy from one to the other that forms the heart of Polley’s film, which is rich in dialogue, for both better and worse.

Notable in its cast of many are Claire Foy as Salome – a mother whose four-year-old daughter has been assaulted, and who goes after the men involved with a scythe – and Michelle McLeod as the young Mejal, who endures largely in bitter silence despite her body’s own protestations. As characters, Salome and Mejal are emblematic of the myriad responses that may or may not emerge in the wake of such intimate violence. In their respective performances, Foy and McLeod burn brightly – the former with an emphatic and deserved rage, the latter with a more unassuming kind of emotional turbulence.

Under Polley’s direction, the women of Women Talking work off each other in an all-too-studied choreography of words, with welcome and unexpected moments of humour and liveliness from the women as well as two teenaged girls taking part in the proceedings. Witnessing the conversations among their elders unfold with equal measures of their own play and anger, these young girls (played by Liv McNeil and Kate Hallett) are much-needed audience surrogates in a staging that too often feels buoyed down by its own conscientiousness.

Rooney Mara in a scene from Women Talking.Michael Gibson/Orion - United Artists Releasing via AP

It is tough, as a critic, to ostensibly chastise a film for caring too much. But I would suggest that the fundamental disconnect of Women Talking is not in its women talking – in the ways that they talk or even what they talk about – but in the film’s inability to shape a world for these women and girls, through the use of its own means and methods, that speaks to the full textures and depths of their experiences.

Of course, one could point out several of the film’s most glaring missteps: the somewhat reductive nature of the film’s dialogue, the lack of care shown to the development of the story’s one transgender character, the dull pallor that suffuses the film’s visuals with a tired weight that it struggles to get out from under. But these criticisms would be all but symptoms of a method of storytelling and world-building that has only self-imposed these limitations.

It is a constraint of cinematic vision that flattens the potential of the figures, the speech, and the movements of Women Talking. It is less about what is being said here – flawed yet fierce as it is – and more that, in order to realize the full impact of its meaning, what is being said needs to fight through the film’s own lacklustre veneer to be able to convey itself with any sense of spirit.

The women and girls of Polley’s film speak across a spectrum of feeling, reminding us of the tenuous boundaries that delineate anger, shame, sadness or joy. It is unfortunate then that Women Talking refuses this same kind of oh-so-human beauty in its own construction and patterning.

Women Talking opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto Dec. 23; expands to select theatres Jan. 6

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.