'Women Talking' a thoughtful, captivating vision of abused women trying to take back their lives | Movie review
Jan. 16—"Women Talking" is refreshingly different. It also is undeniably powerful.
This "act of female imagination" is based on a book — Miriam Toews' 2018 award-winning novel of the same name — and plays as if it would be most at home, at its most riveting, performed on a stage.
Nonetheless, the cinematic adaptation boasts, above all, topnotch performances from several actresses, none stronger than those turned in by the three leads: Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara.
Already given a limited release, "Women Talking" goes wider this week.
Set in a fictional Mennonite colony, this dialogue-heavy affair feels as if it could be happening at almost any point in recent history, which is probably why acclaimed writer-director Sarah Polley has the colony visited by a modern truck, driven by a man working on behalf of the 2010 census. (The movie's logline also states it's set in 2010 — best we not become preoccupied with when all this is happening.)
What is happening — or, more precisely, what has been happening — is horrifically ugly stuff, violence and rape inflicted by some of the men in the colony against many of its women. These actions have resulted in physical and mental scars, as well as pregnancies.
At last, the victims have had enough, leading to the arrest of several of the men by local authorities.
However, the clock is ticking before the abusers' return, as other men have ventured out of the colony to post bail for them. The females, ranging from young girls to colony elders, have 24 hours to agree on one of three options: stay and forgive the men; stay and fight for change; or leave and start a new life somewhere else.
Each option is, in its own ways, terrifying — even the latter, considering the women here have known no other life, no other place.
These women aren't educated — they can't read — but this situation has taught them to vote. More than 100 women have taken part, and a tie has resulted.
That has left the women of two families to talk over the pros and cons of either remaining options — stay and fight or leave — in a hayloft. (It is a beautifully rustic setting, one bathed by all the natural light pouring in through its openings large and small, and it is captured lovingly by director of photography Luc Montpellier, a regular Polley collaborator.)
One clan is headed by Agata, the eldest (Judith Ivey), and includes adult daughters Ona (Mara) and Salome (Foy), the younger of the two. The other is led by Greta, the eldest (Sheila McCarthy), whose daughters include Mariche (Buckley), the oldest. Mariche has been beaten regularly by her husband, Klaas, as has her young daughter, Autje (Kate Hallett).
What follows is a lengthy, often heated discussion about faith and family, violence and reckoning, as well as other big-picture topics. "Women Talking" is an emotionally charged film full of arguments, accusations and apologies among its adult female characters.
There is but one key male adult character: the kind and gentle August Epp (Ben Whishaw). Considered unmanly by the other men, the "failed farmer" has been tasked with providing the colony's young males with an education at the school. August is in love with Ona, who asks him to take the minutes of the meeting. He also endeavors to facilitate the dialogue, even though those efforts aren't always appreciated.
Foy, a big reason why the first two seasons of "The Crown" were so enjoyable, and Buckley ("The Lost Daughter," "Men") portray the two most fiery women and thus stand out from the pack. "Women Talking" crackles when either speaks.
They are contrasted nicely by the delicate exchanges between Ona and August, courtesy of Mara ("Nightmare Alley") and Whishaw ("No Time to Die")..
"I'm sorry, Ona," August tells her at one point.
"One day," she says, "I'd like to hear that from someone who should say it."
In all, this is an astonishing ensemble, with myriad wonderful performances, including the subtle work done by Ivey ("The Devil's Advocate") and McCarthy ("Happy Place").
While Academy Award-winning actress Frances McDormand appears briefly on screen as another elder, Scarface Janz — who represents the minority position of staying and forgiving — was a driving force in bringing "Women Talking" from page to screen. After reading Toews' novel, she took the idea of an adaptation to production house Plan B Entertainment and had Polley in mind as a top choice for director.
As for Polley ("Away From Her," "Take This Waltz"), she saw "Women Talking" "in the realm of a fable," a story that "needed a large canvas, an epic scope through which to reflect the enormity and universality of the questions raised in the film." as he says in her director's statement.
She has given it an almost-otherworldly quality. We are meant to leave our world and to exist in this place with these women and to feel, as much as we are capable, what they feel, for a couple of hours.
It is a special experience, one not to be forgotten quickly.
When: Jan. 20.
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images, and some strong language.
Runtime: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Stars (of four): 3.5.