‘Women Talking’ Is a Powerful Conversation About Revolution

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A group of white women of all ages in modest clothing sit in a hay loft, looking left
L to R: Michelle McLeod stars as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in director Sarah Polley’s ‘Women Talking.’ (Orion Pictures)

The benign title of Sarah Polley’s film, Women Talking, suggests an innocuous gathering of gal pals chatting in a light-hearted romcom. But Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel of the same name positions her female characters at the center of a solemn, determined revolution. Where the women in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata (see also Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq) withhold their bodies from their boyfriends and husbands, Polley’s Mennonite women debate an even more expansive, Biblical-sized punishment. Should they remove themselves permanently from the company of men?

Structurally, Women Talking resembles the legal drama 12 Angry Men, but their debate doesn’t involve the law. It revolves around questions of faith and morality. Can pacifists seek revenge for a series of brutal crimes perpetrated against themselves? In an ever-changing roundelay, the dialogue ricochets between three main and, intermittently, several supporting characters. They form and reform impassioned arguments with one another.

Close-up of two white women in head scarves, heads angled away from each other
Jessie Buckley and Judith Ivey in a scene from 'Women Talking.' (Orion Pictures)

Polley’s camera actively roams in and out of the main set, a barn loft, to take in the surrounding fields and farm houses. But the action, such as it is, takes place internally, as thoughts dawn expressively across the women’s faces, and externally, during each tensely choreographed verbal exchange.

Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley) resonate on screen as individuals but they also represent certain recognizable archetypes. Ona’s a beatific Earth mother. Salome is a vengeful goddess, a scythe-wielding fury. And in more modern terms, Mariche is an obedient wife who would have been comfortable marching alongside Phyllis Schlafly. Each woman embodies one possible response to the men’s crimes against them.

They can forgive them peaceably, quietly, as their faith recommends. They can retaliate with violence. Or, they can leave the only home they’ve ever known. As the conflicting ideas move around the room, the film begins to expand beyond the confines of the hay-filled barn. The story starts in a particular time and place, with these particular women’s stories, but slowly builds into a resonant, all-encompassing allegory.

Young girl in a woman's lap and woman beside her, all in modest clothing.
Emily Mitchell, Claire Foy and Rooney Mara in a scene from 'Women Talking.' (Orion Pictures)

Polley wisely chooses not to depict or reenact any of the rape scenes that have led to this gathering. Nor does she provide any of the men screen time to defend themselves. The director incorporates flashbacks to provide the audience with visual “evidence.” Nearly every woman in the barn is shown in their bed alone at dawn. Each one wakes up bloodied, bruised and horrified by what’s been done to them while they’ve been drugged and asleep.

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The cinematography in these flashbacks, and throughout the movie, are so stylized Polley and Luc Montpellier, her director of photography, seem intent on inventing a new movie genre, “film bleu.” A midnight blue tinges every frame, as if the negatives were developed in a dusky corner of purgatory. Like film noir, the absence of competing colors informs the somber tone of Women Talking. Everything looks like it’s taking place in a nightmare this group of women and girls is unable to forget.

Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara and Claire Foy in a scene from 'Women Talking.' (Orion Pictures)

The great acts of courage the women perform are, chiefly, remembering what happened to them and uniting to form a battle plan in response. As they’re deciding upon a course of action, one especially troubling question recurs: If we leave, do we bring our boys with us? The lone male character in the movie, August (Ben Whishaw), is a sensitive school teacher. The women pointedly ask him to assess the emotional lives of adolescent boys.

In a stunning sequence, August’s response is captured in a voiceover that shows closeups of the boys in a schoolroom and outdoors engaging in roughhouse play. At this crucial turning point in the boys’ lives, their uniformly aggressive expressions imply that most of them will not grow up to become decent men.

It’s one of the strange, baffling conundrums Women Talking brings up but cannot answer. Why do men cause such great harm to women, even when surrounded by extended families of women caretakers? Neither sex is able to solve the problem. But when the film ends, Polley leaves no room for doubt about who should bear the responsibility.

‘Women Talking’ opens Friday, Jan. 6 in Bay Area theaters.