Dignity Over Blind Faith: A Review of Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking”

Sarah Polley started acting at age six, but it took her foray into filmmaking to finally be heard. In the mid-2000s, the Toronto native wrote and directed her first feature, the earnest indie drama Away From Her. The film made her a dark horse Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2007. It also nearly earned Julie Christie her second Best Actress trophy.

By 2012, Polley had retired from acting altogether, realizing that she’s more powerful off-camera and that storytelling was her true calling. That’s when she released the aptly-titled Stories We Tell, her deeply personal documentary that starred her parents and boldly unearthed truths about her identity. One decade later, her voice is heard louder than ever with what could be her most gut-wrenching opus yet.

Women Talking was adapted from Miriam Toew’s 2018 novel of the same name, which was itself inspired by real incidents. Years before the book was written, women in a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia were raped in their sleep, discovering that the men had drugged them with animal tranquilizers beforehand. Toew described her resulting piece as an “imagined response” to those grisly events. Consequently, Polley follows that lead. Both geography and religious sect are kept ambiguous throughout her script. What’s made clear, however, are the aftermaths. We never see the sexual assaults. Instead, the film neither hesitates to depict the chilling repercussions, nor does it ever back down.

The opening text reads “What follows is an act of female imagination”, which underscores the disorientation and the trauma-induced haze. Clearly, misogynistic gaslighting is largely at play. The women in that community are forbidden from learning how to read, much more from acknowledging their reality. They’re no longer sure what to believe, or, for that matter, allowed to believe. Judging from the garments and the subdued, almost black-and-white, color grading, one might also assume this is a period piece. It is not. Brace yourself for a jaw-dropper: a census scene reveals the actual timeline early on. It’s much more recent than you think, more recent, even, than The MonkeesDaydream Believer, the 1960s ditty suggestively playing in the background.

So, the women aren’t only subject to barbaric acts; they’re also shackled by century-old beliefs. More specifically, they’re led to believe that tolerating abuse equates to forgiveness and forgiveness is their ticket to Heaven. Hence, their blind adherence to the status quo.

Fortunately, we don’t see them subscribing to that very long, as the central characters are introduced at their boiling point. “Is forgiveness that’s forced upon us true forgiveness?”, questions Ona (Rooney Mara), the inquisitive pacifist of the group who was impregnated during the attacks. Her musings are challenged by Mariche (Jesse Buckley), the skeptical but suppressed battered wife, whose injuries increase by the scene. Yet none of them are as headstrong and ruthless as Salome (Claire Foy), a mother of two. In an early sequence, she attacks an assailant with a sickle. And she’d likely do the same when faced with a similar threat, beliefs be damned. Surely, it’s a far cry from young Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of The Crown. And, arguably, she’s the cathartic epicenter of the film.

We meet them all at a hayloft, together with a slew of other women, ranging from elder to teen – all of whom had been subject to the abuse. As the men head to town to post bail for the apprehended assailants, the women are left to converge and discuss their fate. It all begins with a snap vote, where they were given three choices: “Do Nothing”, “Stay and Fight”, or “Leave”. With the latter two deadlocked, the women spend the rest of the film weighing the pros and cons of the remaining options. Not “Scarface” Janz (Near-cameo by producer Frances McDormand); she accepts her circumstances and excuses herself from the discourse.

Documenting their discussions is resident teacher August (Ben Whishaw, “Q” from the Daniel Craig Bond movies). More than a background player, he’s proof that sin does not originate from the gender, but from the act itself. That much is made clear in both the sincere connection he forms with Ona and the role he plays in the final reckoning. Then there’s also the enigmatic Melvin (August Winter), a woman who transitioned to male following their own assault and prefers to speak only to children. Much as the character’s a welcome inclusion, some might nitpick how they managed to stay in that colony, given its religious leanings.

That aside, the story still manages to become more potent. As the discussions progress, the women begin to realize the weight of their impending decision. And, soon, they take into account the possible repercussions, mainly in their roles as caregivers. “We have to protect all of our children, not only our daughters”, proposes Agata (Judith Ivey), the senior in the group.

It gets even more rewarding as the women reach their decision, which culminates with them joining hands over a solemn hymn. As the women finally reclaim their agency and act with swift decisiveness, the film comes full bloom. We’re reminded that, sometimes, collective whispers spread the message more potently than even the loudest scream. More than a battle of the sexes, it’s a full-on statement against violence, oppression, and abuse. It’s a triumph poised to have everyone, not just women, talking.

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