Women Talking, writer/director Sarah Polley’s film adaptation of Miriam Toews’ acclaimed novel of the same name announces itself as an unabashedly feminist project from the start. After a few efficient setup scenes, Women Talking begins earnestly with a lofty artist’s statement plainly printed across the screen. “What follows is an act of female imagination,” the text proclaims as the women of the fictional Mennonite colony where the film takes place line up to determine their own fate.
For years, these women and girls have been drugged unconscious and violently raped by anonymous male members of the colony. When one of the girls witnesses a man running away from the scene of an attack, the abusers are no longer faceless. The women finally have proof that the men in their community have attacked them—not Satan, as the colony elders had previously insisted—and they know the identity of at least one of the rapists. The identified rapist names others who have been perpetrating attacks along with him, and the accused men are taken into police custody for their own protection. When all the men leave the colony to post the accused men’s bail, the women, left alone for two precious days, convene to envision their futures. Must they forgive the men, fight the men, or leave the colony altogether?
Women Talking lives up to its name; this is a script-first kind of movie. Most of the action, such as it is, consists of a group of female representatives debating how the colony’s women should proceed. Three generations of women from three different families (and all victims of the attacks) provide different perspectives and suggestions.
Salome (Claire Foy) can barely see past her own thirst for violent revenge. She wants to stay and fight the men when they return. The impossibly serene Ona (Rooney Mara) dreams of a utopian future where the women can rewrite the rules of their religious colony and balance the hierarchy of power. Mariche (Jessie Buckley), perhaps cowed by her physically abusive husband, maintains that there’s nothing that the women can (or should) do to change the situation. Mejal (Michelle McLeod) mostly watches the proceedings, but her PTSD manifests in obvious and unignorable ways. Also joining the deliberations are two matriarchs (Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy) and two teenage girls (Kate Hallett and Liv McNeil). August (Ben Whishaw), the only adult man remaining in the colony, records the minutes of the meeting for the women, who have been forbidden from learning to read or write.
The film depicts and is “an act of female imagination.” The phrase comes from the author’s note that prefaces Toews’ novel, in which the author also describes her story as a “reaction through fiction” to the real-life events that inspired it. However, the hermetically sealed environment of the film renders the film’s act of imagination curiously tidy. While sensitively written and powerfully acted, Polley’s adaptation never shakes the feeling of an intellectual exercise. Each character represents an idea or a type, and every exchange consciously sets another pair of viewpoints against each other. Although the film takes place in an isolated religious community (an experience far removed from most viewers’ own), Polley seems less interested in exploring the specifics of this culture and more invested in using the colony as a microcosm to tease out more universal truths about systemic abuse and women’s oppression.
Polley’s film ultimately imagines a situation in which a group of women collectively decide to take action that benefits all of them. Women Talking argues that collective action is the only effective response to systemic abuse. This might seem refreshing in the wake of other recent films that revel in pointing out that the patriarchy is still alive and well without daring to picture how women might change this state of affairs. But Women Talking avoids having to face the challenges of intersectional feminism by following a group of women who have, for all intents and purposes, very similar life experiences. Additionally, the film purposefully declines to reckon with the question of how these women, who have lived so segregated from the rest of the contemporary world, might exist in that world once they’ve left the colony. The script removes nearly all points of real-life friction to allow for a surprisingly neat sermon.
Within such a precisely structured fable, the purpose of Whishaw’s character is distractingly ambiguous. In the novel, August serves as the narrator; he writes the primary account that makes up the book. Polley instead gives narration duty to one of the teenage girls who witness the meeting (Autje, the girl played by Hallett). Instead of excising August from the adaptation, Polley keeps him around seemingly as a token “not all men” character. Whishaw tries his best in an underwritten role, but August never ceases to feel like an intruder in the movie.
Polley’s film does, I think, largely accomplish what it sets out to do. It’s not that Women Talking doesn’t raise a handful of provocative questions or paint a compelling portrait of solidarity. It’s just that once the credits roll, you might be left asking yourself, “Is that really all we can imagine?”