Brilliant acting makes 'Women Talking' in a barn a chilling and compelling film

·4 min read

“Women Talking” is just that — a group of women discussing how to navigate a crisis.

And what women! The cast includes Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy and Rooney Mara; Frances McDormand has what amounts to a cameo, but serves as a producer.

And what a director. This is Sarah Polley’s first film as a director since the amazing “Stories We Tell” in 2012. Let’s hope another decade doesn’t pass before she makes another. In "Women Talking," her imagination in adapting Miriam Toews’ novel, and her work with the actors involved with what is essentially a series of monologues and back-and-forth conversations, brings a dramatic urgency to the film.

Nevertheless, it can be tough going.

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The subject matter is tough, but Polley navigates it with skill

The women are members of an isolated religious sect. They recently have discovered that some of the elders, men and some boys, have been using animal tranquilizers to render the women unconscious and then raping them.

The women have been told that demons were to blame, until one man is caught in the act. He then names names.

Most of the remaining men have left the farm where they live to post bail for the ones who were arrested. While they’re away, a small group of women gather in a barn to hash out what their next steps will be.

It's an agonizing choice for all of them. The farm they live on is the only place they’ve ever known. They are completely subservient to the men — one woman says she has never asked them anything, not even to pass the salt.

Ona (Mara) is pregnant by a rapist. She thinks they should leave, that there is no longer a sustainable life for them there. Salome (Foy) wants to stand and fight, violently if needed (and possibly preferably, to hear her talk). Mariche (Buckley) wants to forgive them and stay put.

Maybe. The bottled-up anger inside her spills out often and the fear in her face when she hears her husband is on the way home is chilling.

Indeed Buckley, who is always authentic, even (maybe especially) when the material is challenging, as in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” does so much with just a glance or a sudden flash of anger in her eyes. Of the group, she is perhaps the most conflicted, even as she puts up a defiant front.

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Of course, all of the cast must do most of their work with their facial expressions, with their eyes, with a shift in their tone of voice. Foy’s Salome is soft-spoken yet resolute. When Mariche challenges her, angrily, she patiently smiles before responding. It is remarkably Frances McDormand and effective.

Moments of grace and hope are sprinkled throughout

One man remains behind — August (Ben Whishaw), who left the sect when his mother was expelled. He went to college and came back to teach the boys. Only the boys. The women are denied an education, and thus cannot read or write. They enlist August to take notes during their meeting. To Ona, especially (they are obviously in love), he represents a glimmer of humanity where suddenly there seems to be none.

It’s not all a funereal drudge. There are small pockets of humor, many of them provided by the younger girls, Autje (Kate Hallett) and Neitje (Liv McNeil), who have little patience for the speechifying. Their breezy presence does not mean they are not affected, though. Far from it, and that realization is heartbreaking.

The women’s struggle to find a path forward is of course not limited to them. Despite the specificity of the setting and the performances, there is a universality to the story. Why must they flee the only lives they’ve ever known when they have done nothing wrong?

But what is the alternative.

There are no good ones. But there are moments of grace to be found, and Polley, along with the actors, never lets them disappear.

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'Women Talking' 4 stars

Director: Sarah Polley.

Great ★★★★★ Good ★★★★

Fair ★★★ Bad ★★ Bomb ★

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Rooney Mara.

Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images and some strong language.

Note: In theaters Jan. 6.

Reach Goodykoontz at Facebook: Twitter: @goodyk.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'Women Talking' review: Don't miss Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara