Women Talking (Sarah Polley, US)

By Winnie Wang.

Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel Women Talking is set in a remote Mennonite community that exists out of time and under its own jurisdiction, with its own rules and superstitions. For years, the nocturnal disturbances that left local girls and women bruised and bleeding were thought to be a result of divine retribution, demons, or “female imagination”; it was later discovered that their collective nightmare was, in fact, repeated sexual assaults carried out by men armed with animal tranquillizers, many of whom were brothers, cousins, or uncles of the victims. When one assailant is identified and threatened with a scythe, the perpetrators are escorted into the city by police for their safety, granting the women two days to organize their response: stay and fight, or leave. Appointed by the remaining colony to deliberate their collective fates, eight members of the Friesen and Loewen families gather in a hayloft-turned-debate hall to consider the possibility of justice and forgiveness alongside their faith.

The vengeful Salome (Claire Foy), unwilling to suppress her rage over the rape of her youngest daughter, suggests retributive justice through violence without concern for her destination in the afterlife. The equally assured Mariche (Jessie Buckley) insists that the women cannot fight, as this would betray their vow of forgiveness and pacifism, thus forfeiting their place in heaven. Ona (Rooney Mara), who retains her inquisitive and gentle disposition despite carrying the unborn child of her attacker, keenly participates in the discussion with musings that probe the power structures and implications embedded in their shared beliefs. The two youngest of the assembly, Autje (Kate Hallett) and Neitje (Emily Mitchell), commit mischief while their mothers and aunts argue, braiding their hair into a single plait and playing practical jokes, one of which involves a fake suicide. But more than offering moments of levity between impassioned monologues, the girls serve as a reminder of futurity—that the women’s verdict should not only address their immediate needs, but also embody the principles that could invent a better world.

In adapting Toews’ forcefully rhetorical novel, Polley tackles the challenge inherent in crafting any narrative involving sexual assault, which is resisting falling into well-worn narratives about recovery and emotional platitudes that depict survivors in broad strokes. During their heated arguments, the women display grief and fury alongside joy and hilarity, and resume caregiving responsibilities even as they remain in ideological opposition to one another. Their ideas oscillate between the trivial and the profound, and sometimes feed into each other: Greta’s recurring story about her beloved horses’ tendency to flee in the face of danger suggests that the women respond in kind. With varying shades of hope and resignation, the characters reveal messy and often contradictory desires, confirming our knowledge that discord and disagreement can exist even among survivors of the same events. Whenever the back-to-back soliloquies begin to feel didactic, the film reminds us that the women are engaged in crucial acts of self-instruction that they’ve long been denied.

Tasked with producing a written artifact of the women’s conversation is August (Ben Whishaw), a male schoolteacher who can read and write, and who is allowed by the women to preside over their meeting due to his generally unthreatening mien and the fact that his family has been excommunicated by the church. The narrator of the novel out of formal necessity, he is replaced in the film by Autje, which nominally affords the women in Polley’s adaptation with an unmediated forum in which they can freely think, speak, and form opinions. Forfeited in this move, however, is the novel’s sustained expression of August’s literacy and other privileges afforded by his gender, inequalities in power that surface despite the inverted dynamics of the meeting. With August’s presence and its attendant reminder of the limiting, restrictive patriarchy in which these women live thus minimized, the film instead implies the founding of a matriarchal society that feels somewhat fantastical, and perhaps delusional, in its ideals.

Playing into this is Polley’s choice to omit any mention of the word “Mennonite” or other location-identifying details in the film, instead alluding to the women’s background through plain dress, prayers, and other rituals. Although this exclusion was done out of a well-intentioned concern about further objectifying remote communities that are already subject to voyeuristic interest and increasing media attention, it also functions to soften the particular mechanisms by which patriarchy operates within this community. In its reluctance to emphasize difference, the film instead makes sweeping abstractions about living under oppression and thereby erodes the possibility of forging a genuine solidarity between Mennonite and non-Mennonite women. The result is that Polley’s adaptation loses the kind of nuance that distinguishes its source material from mere “good politics.” Racing towards a swift resolution that seldom spares time for digressions on Mennonite expressions or semantics, the film Women Talking consistently elects to take the safest, most direct path to the women’s final ruling even as it simultaneously yields to stylistic hyperbole. Though the actual assaults are never depicted, there exists little restraint in overhead shots of women waking in bloodstained sheets and the recurring sound of bells meant to suggest both a doomsday warning and a call to prayer. 

Luc Montpellier’s cinematography contributes to this stylized reality, rejecting the characteristic signifiers of the pastoral (blue skies, golden hills, vivid patchworks of plaid and paisley garments) in favour of a determinedly faded palette that italicizes the protagonists’ emotional devastation. Approaching total desaturation, Polley’s visual language borrows from Larry Towell’s The Mennonites, a collection of black-and-white photographs of Old Colony Mennonites shot in ’90s rural Ontario and Mexico. Yet where Towell’s work exudes a sense of mutual understanding that invites curiosity and compassion, the film renders these same shades of grey as something imposed, lacking the stark otherworldliness of monochrome even as it eschews the exuberance of full colour. While Towell’s use of desaturation evokes an ageless quality, Polley employs the effect to manipulatively suggest a historical past until a census taker reveals it’s 2010. Whether as contrived misdirection or visual congruence to underline despair, the film’s grittiness lacks imagination in its rendering of the setting as contemporary, urgent, and alive.

As the film ends, the women begin packing their belongings, brimming with hope and uncertainty for what lies beyond the horizon. Even as there’s no promise of security or conclusive answers about how they are to conduct their new lives, though, the heavy-handed direction leading up to their climactic departure creates the expectation that they’ll land on their feet. To its ultimate detriment, Polley’s film, in its fondness for its protagonists, not only hesitates to expose them to any further risks—narrative, formal, or otherwise—it even saves them from some of the novel’s ambiguity. With its few perceptive additions to the discursive arena derived almost exclusively from Toews’ exhilarating pages, Women Talking’s articulation of gendered power struggles and feminist reimaginings is finally as muted and grey as its photography in its privileging of affirmation over insight.