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'Women Talking' explores survival, solidarity and spirituality after sexual assault

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy star in <em>Women Talking</em>,<em> </em>which tells the story of a religious colony devastated by sexual violence.
Michael Gibson
Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy star in Women Talking, which tells the story of a religious colony devastated by sexual violence.

Miriam Toews' novel Women Talking is drawn from events that came to light in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2009, when a group of men was charged with raping more than 100 girls and women in their community. For a long time, community leaders attributed these mysterious attacks to the work of evil spirits. Both the novel and now Sarah Polley's superbly acted movie adaptation scrupulously avoid showing the attacks themselves. They're less interested in dwelling on the horror of what the men have done than in asking what the women will do in response.

As the movie opens, the accused men have been jailed in a nearby town, and the other men in the community — complicit in spirit, if not in action — have gone to bail them out, leaving the women behind. The movie makes no mention of setting, as if to suggest that this story, filmed with English-speaking actors, could be taking place anywhere. So there's a sense of abstraction built in from the outset, something that Polley emphasizes by shooting in a nearly monochrome palette: not quite black-and-white, not quite sepia toned. Most of the movie takes place in the hayloft of a barn where eight women have gathered. They've been chosen to decide what course of action they and the other women in the colony will take.

Some of the women — like those played by Jessie Buckley and a briefly seen Frances McDormand — believe they should ultimately forgive the men, in keeping with their strict Christian values. Others, like those played by Claire Foy and Michelle McLeod, insist on fighting their attackers, to the death if necessary. Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey are especially good as the group's elders, who try to keep the peace as the arguments become more and more heated.

Women Talking might feel stagy at times, but it never feels static. The discussions here are mesmerizing, especially because Polley has shot and edited them to feel as dynamic and propulsive as possible. At times I wanted the movie to be even talkier: While the book's dialogue has been understandably truncated, sometimes the conversations feel a little too engineered for rhetorical flow. But none of that diminishes the gravity of the drama or the impact of the performances, especially from Rooney Maraas Ona, who emerges as the most thoughtful member of the group. Ona, who is pregnant from a rape, could easily have been focused on revenge. But instead, she proposes a radical third option: What if the women leave the colony and the men behind, and they begin a new life somewhere else?

As it unfolds, the movie etches a portrait of women who, even apart from the assaults, have only ever known lives of oppression. None of them was ever taught to read or write, so the task of taking the minutes of their meeting falls to a sympathetic schoolteacher named August — the movie's only significant male character, sensitively played by Ben Whishaw.

August is in love with Ona and wants to look after her and her unborn child, but she gently refuses: Whatever the women are going to do, they have to do it together and on their own. As the idea of leaving gains momentum, the debate keeps intensifying: How will they survive in the outside world? Should they bring their young sons with them? Will their departure keep them from fulfilling their duty to forgive the men — or is it only by leaving that they can even consider forgiveness?

There's obvious contemporary resonance to a story about holding male abusers accountable, though it would be reductive to describe Women Talking as a Mennonite #MeToo drama, as some have. What distinguishes this survival story from so many others is that, even as it acknowledges the abusive, patriarchal power structure in this religious colony, it still takes seriously the question of spiritual belief: It's the women's faith in God that ultimately empowers them to imagine a better, fairer way of life.

You may disagree with that conclusion, and I suspect that on some level, Polley wants you to. Women Talking comes to a deeply moving resolution, but it also knows that the conversation is just getting started.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.