Women Talking – Film Review

Do nothing. Stay and fight. Or leave. An extremely hard decision that many women have had to make. Inspired by true events from 2010, a group of women must choose between their faith and their humanity when given an ultimatum.

In an isolated Mennonite sect, unspeakable abuse has become commonplace. Countless women and young girls have been subject to druggings and rape at the hands of the male populace. When the latest perpetrator is caught, jailed, but then released, the women are given 2 days to forgive him.

Outraged at this injustice, the women vote on what they wish to do. The elder Janz (Frances McDormand) believes this is just how things are and they should do nothing. Others like Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) want to stay and fight for their place in the community. While others still such as Greta (Sheila McCarthy) or the pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara) yearn to leave despite knowing nothing of the outside world.

The vote unfortunately results in a tie between ‘stay and fight’ and ‘leave’. The 11 women of the community band together in a hayloft to debate how to proceed. With August (Ben Whishaw), a kind and educated man, staying with them to record the minutes of their meeting. Their decision will impact not just their own lives but that of their children and future generations as well.

Based on the novel by Miriam Toews, writer and director Sarah Polley’s latest film is a harrowing provocative look at female autonomy. Its story follows deeply religious women struggling between a rock and a hard place, which in itself is like some biblical parable, that an unquestionably abusive situation can still be hard to escape when you’ve begun to accept it as the only way.

It is quite fitting then that Polley’s film has a drowned out, almost monochromatic colour scheme. There is some amazing scenery shown, however, appropriately all the colour has faded from these women’s lives. Almost like in order to numb themselves from the bad (with blood appearing more grey), these women have to shut themselves off to nature’s beauty as well.

Women Talking often feels very much like a single location stage play. The barn within which these women have their meeting acts as the only real set of the film. The movie is never boring though, as the conference explores the women’s’ varying emotions and ideals.

Feelings of rage, forgiveness, hopelessness, and even cathartic laughter are explored as Women Talking goes on. I feel the story is more about the grander scope of ideas put forward by its characters than it is about a self-contained plot. While set in 2010, there is nothing in the film itself that establishes this. Many contexts for events and characters are absent, with certain aspects such as Melvin (August Winter), a mute transgender boy, feeling underdeveloped as a result. 

The film instead is much more of an emotional journey led by the stellar performances of its cast. We know what these women need to do, but the point is in watching them realise this themselves.

Women Talking’s leading ladies portray differing extreme sides of the debate. Foy and Buckley are fantastic to watch, bringing their characters’ frustration and pain to the screen. The nurturing Ona on the other hand knows that she can’t be fuelled by such hate if she is to love her baby, itself a product of the abuse. The always great Frances McDormand sadly has a very reduced role in this movie and almost as if 90% of her scenes are on the cutting room floor.

It is ironic then that the best performance may well come from the film’s sole (non-transgender) male actor. Whishaw plays a humble, yet conflicted man torn between his love of Ona, his faith, and his desire to lead the sect’s boys to do better.

Sarah Polley delivers another fascinating film with this story of silenced women finding their voices. Women Talking is a thought-provoking film with lofty messages which sometimes overshadow its story and characters. It is elevated greatly by the amazing performances it contains, and by some of the best actresses working today.

Women Talking is in cinemas from February 16th.

Sign up to receive weekly updates on our most recent reviews.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *