After premiering at the Telluride Film Festival in the fall of 2022, Women Talking made its way to theatrical audiences on Jan. 13. Adapted from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel of the same name, the film was co-written and adapted by Toews and Canadian director Sarah Polley. Women Talking follows eight women in a remote Mennonite community who grapple with their faith in God and their community following a series of violent sexual assaults. The film tracks these women for 48 hours as they decide, through a series of conversations, to fight, forgive, or flee. Despite its grim subject matter, Women Talking doesn’t feel like taking your medicine. With piercing dialogue, a captivating sea of performances, and striking visual composition, Women Talking is as compelling cinematically as it is thematically.
The film creatively departs from the novel by placing a young girl from the colony (Kate Hallett) as the narrator—in stark contrast to the novel’s male narrator, August. Although August (Ben Whishaw) still appears in the film, Polley and Toews use this minute yet monumental change to centre women’s voices and presences in their story. The central conversation between the eight women is sharp, cutting, and at times, witty. The script pays careful attention to never demonize or look down upon these women for their religious beliefs. It never once passes judgment for their fears of staying or leaving the place they call home, even though it may be a dangerous place. With such powerful dialogue, their words resonate well into the film’s quiet moments.
The film’s three leads—Ona (Rooney Mara), Salome (Claire Foy), and Mariche (Jessie Buckley)—intently articulate the emotional, physical, and spiritual pains of the women. Each of them symbolizes the three core solutions proposed by the women in the colony—to forgive, fight, or flee—but none ever feel like a caricature or too on the nose. Foy, who comes to represent the desire to fight, delivers an intensely captivating performance, unwavering in vigour and sorrow from start to finish. She says every line of dialogue with the same fierceness as the last—serving as the driving force of division, you simply can’t take your eyes off her. Alongside the rest of the cast, Buckley and Mara’s performances expertly support Foy’s. Mara, in particular, acts as the emotional core of the film as an audience stand-in, incorporating lighter moments of a blossoming romance with the bleak backdrop of the film’s overarching themes. Buckley plays in direct contrast to Foy, acting as a sounding board for her ever-changing perspectives throughout the film.
The matriarchs of the colony, Greta (Sheila McCarthy) and Agata (Judith Ivey), masterfully bring a sense of structure and order to the sprawling cast. Despite the individual merits of each performance, the cast’s chemistry and support of one another is what makes the entire film something extraordinary. Their authentic chemistry brings life to the script, brilliantly portraying countless aspects of this community’s collective experience.
Director Sarah Polley made a striking and bold choice with the film’s visual language by working with a drab, grey colour palette. This could have compromised the cinematography, but Polley elevates the emotional tension with colour to emphasize the desperation the women in this colony feel. Something has drained these women’s lifeblood, metaphorically and visually. With sweeping shots of country fields and sunsets from barn doors tinted with the film’s ominous colour palette, Polley creates a sense of familiarity, discomfort, and hope, all before the first words are spoken.
Women Talking combines a masterfully written script, astonishing performances, and phenomenal visuals, making the film one of the year’s most important and compelling works. To some, a story of women having conversations in one setting may seem exceptionally suited to a novel. Polley, however, expertly demonstrates how film can not only accommodate, but even elevate the text beyond its original form.
Women Talking is currently playing in theatres across the country.