Miriam Toews's 2018 book Women Talking is a fictionalized response to the horrifying acts within a secluded Mennonite community. The facts of this real-life horror are that between 2005 and 2009, 150 women and girls were drugged and raped by men in their community. Elders in the community got suspicious and reported the crime to authorities. Eight men were sentenced to 25 years in prison. Sarah Polley has adapted this fictional response into a thrilling film that miraculously avoids the trappings of its confined space.
The film is largely set in a barn where several women commune to discuss their response while the men of the community are in town putting up bail for the accused men. The women must decide upon three actions: 1) Do Nothing 2) Stay and fight or 3) Leave the community. The film sets up a ticking clock as the men will be returning and the women must have a united response. Women Talking is just that. For most of its run-time, the film is a thoughtful, urgent discussion of what it means to take any one of those responses.
The women cannot read or write so they ask a former apostate, August (Ben Wishaw) to take notes down of their discussion and decision. August has a crush on Ona (Rooney Mara) but it is never made front and center, just something flirted at. Polley keeps the focus on the varying perspectives of each woman talking.
Women Talking will be compared to 12 Angry Men in that it has a similar structure and a similar way of finding thrilling drama in a group of people arguing for an outcome. This is largely due to an excellent cast. Jessie Buckley plays Mariche, an abused woman whose views expose her fears. Claire Foy plays Salome, a woman so angered by what the men have done that she attacks one of them with a pitchfork. Foy gives a simmering performance. Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy play the elder women who bring wisdom to the table. In smaller roles, Frances McDormand, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, and Liv McNeil all shine.
Polley uses her camera to constantly view the horizon, suggesting that the women here are crafting their future, not just responding to the past. This helps keep the movie from feeling stagey and also keeps the focus away from what the men did. Women Talking presents a hopeful story about building a new reality. It is clear Polley intends this to speak to the larger world, that may benefit from women leading it. The film never comes off as preachy but it does aim to empower women to take the lead in shaping the world they want. From its fantastic script to its remarkable cast, Women Talking is a great film.