Film Review: Sarah Polley’s Women Talking projects confronting but necessary conversations around abuse and religion

Based on Miriam Toews‘s 2018 novel of the same name, Women Talking is a complicated, multi-faceted look at religion and the complexity of abuse response.

The easiest thing to ask someone – specifically a woman – when they mention abuse within a relationship is why they haven’t left.  It’s an outside perspective that is never remotely as simplistic as the reality, and the answer to such a question is what director Sarah Polley explores here.

Set over the course of an afternoon in an isolated Mennonite community, Women Talking – an apt title if ever there was one – centres around a group of women who congregate, learning the men in the community have been drugging them prior to repeated sexual abuse, then gaslighting the women folk into believing their sustained injuries were the work of demonic influences.

Given the singular setting and harsh thematic, it’s understandable how taxing and confronting Polley’s film may be to unprepared audience members.  This is a painful film, but not in any type of physicality or aesthetically.  To hear these women talk about what they have experienced and then to debate what they do going forward projects a certain anguish onto viewers, and depending on your own experiences or beliefs it may prove triggering.

With the revelation of such heinous actions of the men in the community, it’d be too fundamental for Polley to attack the response in a combative manner.  Yes, some of the women – namely Salome (Claire Foy) – are adamant in their decision to stay within the colony and fight back, whilst Ona (Rooney Mara), who is currently pregnant as a result of one of the rape attacks, furthers such a temperament by suggesting that within their defiance in staying they create a new set of rules that will give the women equality.

Counterpointing these actions is Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who believes that forgiveness is the only viable option in surviving the eventual return of the male community; the attackers all arrested and transported to a nearby city, with the remaining men all travelling to oversee the respective bails, leaving the women alone to debate whether they stay and do nothing, stay and fight, or leave all together.

Janz (Frances McDormand), also known as “Scarface”, leaves the meeting not long after the debates begin, becoming disillusioned with the discussion, with her character perhaps representing the strongest belief in God, as the faith of the women remains a constant undercurrent in their decisions.  These decisions ultimately come to a halt when the conversations swirl to the point of a stalemate, and Ona suggests that August (Ben Whishaw), the colony’s school teacher and one of the only remaining men, devise a list of pros and cons for each of the situations they are currently exploring.

As mentioned above that “women talking” is a supremely suitable title for a film that is, in fact, sequences of women talking, it’s important that a character like Whishaw’s August is heavily involved to showcase that this isn’t a film attacking men outright.  By no means is Polley expressing a #NotAllMen mentality, and there’s a debate to be had here on the importance of religion and its enforcement, but the strands of conversations being had all point to the differing minds that come with such abusive action and if there is one correct answer.

Ultimately there is a sense of triumph to be had in where Women Talking navigates its story, but the film is all too aware that it needs to entertain the frustrating and confrontational avenues along the way.  Heavy it may be to some, infuriating to others, but necessary to all – whether you want to hear about it or not – Women Talking is a divisive drama that should be respected for tackling its issues with a straightforwardness.

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Women Talking is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.