Film review: ‘Women Talking’ delves into a shocking and tragic story of faith

Canada’s Polley writes and directs a tale of women who have been raped


It’s hard to imagine a movie title that is more true to its core than “Women Talking.”

For some, the prospect of spending more than 1 hour and 40 minutes listing to women talking might not sound riveting. But it is.

That’s because of the brilliantly paced screenplay by director and writer Sarah Polley, who has adapted the novel by Miriam Toews. It’s also because of an excellent ensemble cast, including Judith Ivey, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw and the fast-rising Irish phenomenon Jessie Buckley.

The gist of the story is a shocker, based on true events: Women who are members or a colony of Mennonites in Bolivia begin to realize that they have been attacked by the male members, who have drugged them and then raped them. For years, the sight of women waking up to bloody sheets and visible marks of violence were covered up or explained away. But some of the women have refused to ignore these violations any longer — and have reported the assaults to the authorities. Some of the men have been detained, but they are expected back in the colony soon.

Two families encompassing three generations of women break with the rest of the colony and begin to hold meetings in a hayloft to discuss what to do. Should they stay and fight back? Should they remain silent? Or should they leave the colony?

The Friesens and the Loewens reject any notion of staying silent. But they also struggle to figure out how to reconcile their path with their faith. And they are awfully angry that their trust in their colony has been violated.

Among those in the loft are Agata Friesen (Ivey), who is joined by daughters Ona (Mara) and Salome (Foy), and teenager Neitje (Liv McNeil), a niece of Salome’s. Ona is pregnant and unmarried, and does not know who the father is. Also present are Greta Loewen (McCarthy), with daughters Mariche (Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod) and granddaughter Autje (Kate Hallett).

The women have not been taught to read or write, but they want a record of their hayloft discussions. So they ask a colony schoolteacher, August Epp (Whishaw), to keep the minutes of the meetings.

August’s family was once banished from the colony because, he says, “my mother questioned things.” So he has gone to college and seen more of the world, only to return to help teach the colony’s boys how to read and write. He also has a long friendship with Ona — and is more than willing to marry her, if she’ll have him.

Ona, however, doesn’t seem ready to settle down. She says she looks forward to having her baby, but she pressures the others to consider leaving, for obvious reasons.

Buckley’s Mariche is one of the group’s fiercest members — at one point calling Ona a whore. She says she wants to stay and fight — and vows to kill any male member who dares to rape her young daughter. But this leads to anguish among the other women.

If the women ultimately decide to leave, then they must figure out what to do with the children. They seem to agree that they must take the girls in order to keep them safe. But what about the boys? If they take them away, what should the cutoff age be?

Cinematographer Luc Montpelier shoots the scenes in almost sepia tones, or at least desaturated colors. That’s a conscious choice for both Polley and Montpelier, as they are trying to present a world out of sync with time.

Polley treats the shocking material with restraint, and we do not see the rapes, only the aftermath. She also gets astonishing, empathetic performances from her cast. The Canadian actor and director came to worldwide attention as the star of 1997’s “The Sweet Hereafter.”

In 2008, Polley was nominated for a best adapted screenplay Oscar for “Away From Her.” It looks like she’ll get another nomination for “Women Talking.”

Polley’s movie had its Texas premiere at the recent Austin Film Festival, which focuses on screenwriters. It opens in theaters Dec. 23.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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