Women Talking ★★★1/2
Availability: Recently released more widely in major cities and countries; for future streaming availability (likely early March), see JustWatch here.
Ten Angry Women
It shouldn’t work. Ten women spending the day debating their fate in a barn. “This is boring,” says a teenage participant, throwing that possibility in our faces. But it isn’t. The women are from three families that have been chosen to decide the fate of their Mennonite community after all but one of the men have been arrested and jailed on charges of raping them. The options: do nothing, stay and fight, leave. Out of this scarcely believable premise, director and writer Sarah Polley has produced an engrossing and emotionally powerful film.
“We’ve never been able to ask anything of the men, not even to pass the salt.”
Though it shares some characteristics with “Twelve Angry Men” (1957) and the decision-making of a jury deliberating a case, the horrific facts are secondary to the discussion and are never in dispute. It’s a given that the men have drugged the women and systematically raped them—old and young (one woman fears for her four-year-old daughter)—telling them it’s Satan at work. Evidence of the rapes is brief, after-the-fact, and often shown from above, reflecting the “out of body” sensation assaulted women often describe. The focus is on the women, illiterate and to this point powerless: “we’ve never been able to ask anything of the men, not even to pass the salt.”
This improbable script (one cannot imagine Polley pitching it to production execs) is unusually crafted. There’s no arc of convincing the lone holdout; no great escape caper, though an escape is considered; no plot to speak of. Just women in a barn, short of time, desperately seeking consensus.
The three generational tableau of women, from left, Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Neitje (Liv McNeil), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Salome (Claire Foy), Autje (Kate Hallett), Ona (Rooney Mara), and Agata (Judith Ivey).
A three-generational tableau of women explore their options. Two matriarchs of their families (if one can be a powerless matriarch) are the stolid Agata (Judith Ivey), who advocates pacifism, and the wizened Greta (Sheila McCarthy), who comes to her own realization of enabling the abuse: “can forgiveness become permission?” A third female elder, Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, who is also a producer), leaves the deliberations early on, convinced that staying is the only way to get to heaven.
The drama is dependent on the interactions of the next generation, three women in the midst of their child-bearing years (and whose children do they bear?), three fine actresses representing very different reactions to the dilemma. There’s the beatific, almost too-saintly Ona—“freedom and safety are the ultimate goals” (Rooney Mara in a starkly different role from 2011’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Jessie Buckley (marvelous as the young Leda in “The Lost Daughter”  and believable as “the young woman” in Charlie Kaufman’s existential “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” ) exhibits the anger and angst, even the foul mouth, of the abused and beaten Mariche. Salome (Claire Foy, most recently dominating our TVs as young Elizabeth II in “The Crown”) occupies a middle ground, neither as measured as Ona nor as hostile as Mariche, yet knowing that if she stays she’ll end up a killer.
At the young end of the generational tableau are two teenagers, Autje, also the narrator (Kate Hallett), and Neitje (Liv McNeil), who now and then provide a lighter perspective. One man, a self-effacing, depressed August (Ben Whishaw), recently returned to the community after being at a university, and a traumatized trans-gender woman, Melvin (August Winter), round out the cast in the hayloft.
Polley's film rises above preachiness and metaphor by denying the viewer an in-person villain.
Correspondences to the #MeToo movement and to exposés ranging from Catholic priests (resonating with the religious power of the male elders here) to Bill Cosby (who also drugged and raped women) to Harvey Weinstein are so obvious as to potentially undermine the film. Yet Polley pulls off the (again) improbable, her film rising above preachiness and metaphor (for sexual assault generally) partly by never showing the men, nor the men in the act of sexual assault, by denying the viewer an in-person villain while focusing on the choices facing these women, and the difficult, even unanswerable, questions emerging from the exchange.
Without the men’s faces and crimes onscreen, it’s harder to consider revenge and easier for one’s attention to be solely on the women and their deliberations. Taking root in that hayloft are the troubling questions of the women’s participation in their abuse, the role of religion in justifying tolerance or forgiveness, and the role of love. Ona: “Why does love—the absence of love, the end of love, the need for love—result in so much violence?” The discussion contracts and expands, from the particular to the general: When does a teenage boy become a man? What makes human beings—brainwashing, habit, learning, religion, ethics, gender, wisdom? What is ignorance when these women have a knowledge beyond literacy? What are the parameters of a total institution?
“Women Talking” has a few notes of humor. When Mariche shouts “Fuck It Off!” one of the teenagers says, “I think it’s ‘Fuck Off’,” breaking the spell of seriousness. And the arrival in a truck of men from the Census Bureau (whose faces we don’t see), asking people to come out of their houses to be counted, is accompanied by their truck-top speakers playing “Daydream Believer” by The Monkees: “Cheer up, sleepy Jean/Oh, what can it mean/To a daydream believer/And a homecoming queen?” “It’s the 2010 Census” also dates the setting, as does nothing else in this off-the-grid rural community.
Polley (whose notable films include “Away from Her”  with Julie Christie and the autobiographical documentary “Stories We Tell” ) wrote the script based on the eponymous book by fellow Canadian Miriam Toews, herself raised as a Mennonite. The novel in turn is based on the story of a Bolivian Mennonite community. It’s to the writers’ credit that there’s no “based on a true story” at the beginning and no “here’s where they are now” at the end. Polley and Toews want the complex, gripping, life-altering conversation in a hayloft to stand by itself. And it does.
Director: Sarah Polley
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Sheila McCarthy, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, Ben Whishaw, August Winter, Frances McDormand, Michelle McLeod
Country: United States
Runtime: 104 minutes
Oscar Nominees: 2023—Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay
Other Awards: 40 wins and 138 other nominations to date, many for best adapted screenplay and ensemble cast