Filmmaker Sarah Polley has always been a tireless miner of the female headspace, excavating gold out of thoroughly earned feminine wisdom. Relentlessly challenging the rules of a man’s world and putting their own stamp on societal conventions are acts that we came to expect from her women. After all, those were some of the defining traits of Polley’s very own mother, as we intimately got to learn in her masterpiece, “Stories We Tell.”
In that regard, the quietly powerful “Women Talking” — opulently adapted by Polley from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel and world-premiering at the Telluride Film Festival this year — feels like a culmination of Polley’s curiosities as a storyteller.
It also has echoes of some of her secretive, silently aching on-screen parts as an actor in the likes of “The Sweet Hereafter” and “The Weight of Water.” As substantiated in the title, her latest — a raw, cutting and hopeful feminist manifesto of philosophical ideas, both timely and timeless — boldly involves women exchanging words with another in what feels like a cinematic stage play.
Bridging their discussions is the innocent voice of a young narrator, Autje (first-timer Kate Hallett); sounding so unadulterated that one could almost swear we’re about to hear a sweet little bedtime fable from her. Except, we have already laid eyes on an agonizing image at that point, with the traditionally garbed Ona (an angelic Rooney Mara) awakening from her deep sleep with dried blood all over her thighs.
Part of a Mennonite colony, Ona woundedly calls out to her mom in a painful daze, with the voiceover muttering something about her colony’s women often waking up like this, somehow feeling on their bodies predatory hands that once were but are no longer there. The pieces fall into place quickly, with clever clues establishing the era presented here as contemporary times.
We learn that for far too long, women of this community — horrifyingly, even underage girls — have been drugged and raped by the men, often in incest. The women couldn’t protest, as the slightest bit of complaint would register as attention-seeking behavior. They were told it’s their crazy imagination one minute, or that they’ve been raped by ghosts or demons the next. But the women finally get a fighting chance when two of the colony’s children witness a rapist fleeing the scene. Temporary arrests are made soon after, leaving the women with one task they had to realize, quickly, before the men return: how to bounce back from the immeasurable violence and terror they’ve endured.
Their options — “Do nothing,” “Stay and fight” and “Leave” — might sound straightforward enough, but picking one proves to be anything but when they all handle their traumas differently under the same stifling masculine power structures. Led Frances McDormand (also a producer) as the traditionally-minded Scarface Janz, the submissive “Do nothing” folks don’t stay in the picture for long, vacating the hayloft so the rest can debate.
There are pros and cons to each side, and the kindly, gentle yet mysterious schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), who’s palpably in love with Ona, assumes note-taking duties on behalf of the illiterate ladies. Those written words seem sacred to the women; as one of them puts it, they are artifacts to be passed onto whoever comes after them. Once lacking the proper words to talk about their bodies and shunned to gaping silence as a result in past generations, they recognize the necessity of those words now, searching for the truth and meaning behind each one.
Polley strikes a hypnotizing rhythm amongst the women, who attack despair with cheeky humor (“Women Talking” is unexpectedly funny in parts) and uncertainty with astute deliberation, respectfully challenging each other on a course of action as much as lovingly braiding one another’s hair. And it must be noted that, wisely, Polley never shows us the acts of violence committed on the women — perhaps because there is already too much of it out there. We only see what’s been left in its wake, like scars, bruises and Ona’s very pregnant belly.
Amazingly enough, Ona ethereally lives in the skin of her religion’s pacifist ideals, articulating her desire to comprehend her attacker’s crime, just so she could learn one day to pity him and, with some distance, maybe even forgive him on her own terms. Her fiery sister Salome (Claire Foy, who runs away with the movie in a performance of burning rage), on the other hand, wants to hear none of it. She’d rather attack and deal with the wrath of God later. She could even kill to avenge what’s been done to her. You see it in Foy’s eyes so vividly that you believe she means business.
As Mariche, who’s long been suffering in her cruel husband’s hands, Jessie Buckley portrays another one of the clan’s most memorable women. Her character is perhaps the most complicated one too, stuck between a sense of resignation and concealed desire to burn it all down. Elsewhere, non-binary actor August Winter’s character Melvin offers a thoughtful shade of depth in discussions about gender and acceptance.
Leading the group of youngsters (among them is Michelle McLeod’s no-nonsense smoker Mejal) are two matriarchs: Mariche’s witty mother Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Judith Ivey’s soulful Agata, the parent of Ona and Salome. As old-worldly wisdom pours out of the pair, the film’s text aptly recognizes the mistakes of the former generation, too. In one of the movie’s most heartrending moments, one such acknowledgment gets delivered by Greta, who profusely apologizes to Mariche for forcing her daughter repeatedly to forgive her abusive husband.
The debate that unfolds around forgiveness in “Women Talking” remains a radical one throughout, one that differentiates between forgiveness that’s often seen as “permission to do more of the same” and true, unforced forgiveness. Equally invigorating is the women’s logical dissection of the unapologetic autonomy that sets “leaving” and “fleeing” apart. Aiding the astonishingly analytical conversation is Hildur Guðnadóttir’s inquisitory score of deep strings, complementing the film’s serious tone with flourishes of lightness and positivity.
You often wish repeat Polley collaborator Luc Montpellier’s cinematography were also a match for all the verbal sumptuousness on display. While the exteriors often resemble a dreamy Western of sunbeams touched by Terrence Malick, the interiors (where the majority of the film is set) sadly look dampened by a generic icy-blue tint that dulls any sense of grain.
Luckily, “Women Talking” is a deeply textured experience otherwise, one that imagines a peaceful world where feminine sensibilities call the shots rather than the ill-advised impulses and unbridled emotions of men. The women whose exquisite company we get to enjoy for a couple of hours dare to dream exactly that, eager to claim for themselves a little space in which they are allowed to think, demand safety, raise their young sons right and make their own decisions without abandoning their beliefs. In the end, what they leave us with is a vast feeling of hope and optimism, perhaps the ultimate form of faith.
“Women Talking” opens in select US theaters December 2 and expands December 25.