Women Talking is aptly-titled because the bulk of the film is just that. It's what those women talk about that makes it compelling. Director Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) and co-writer Miriam Toews tackle an important issue, namely the abuse of women by bad men. Using the characters to dissect the various possible responses to such abuse, they create an intelligent, provocative work that transcends the stagey nature of the material.
The story is set inside an unnamed religious community, not unlike the Mennonites or the Amish. Most of the women, including the teenagers, are regular victims of sexual assault by the men. It's clear that a patriarchal set-up exists here. Females are viewed as either baby-makers or as having an obligation to satisfy the males' carnal desires. Fed up, they secretly meet in the barn to discuss options. One is to leave en masse. A second is to stay and do nothing, as their religion teaches that leaving the community means sacrificing one's ability to get into Heaven. Pros and cons exist on both sides.
Disagreement among the women is rampant. The angry Salome (Claire Foy) takes yet another stance, advocating outright vengeance. Sharp-tongued Mariche (Jessie Buckley) argues her similar “stay and fight” position forcefully, whereas Ona (Rooney Mara) appeals more to logic than to outright emotion. The perspectives of older members like Agata (Judith Ivey) are more temperate than those of the younger. Then there's Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) who wants no part of any of it. Ben Wishaw co-stars as August, a shy school teacher who has long been in love with Ona. He's appalled by the actions of the other men and agrees to take notes during the meeting.
Women Talking offers consistently thought-provoking ideas. Part of the abuse cycle, it points out, is that perpetrators create a scenario in which victims are stuck, so that any action they may take to end the abuse comes with a negative consequence. The characters feel the weight of that. Where will they go if they leave? How will they support themselves? If they stay to avoid risking their salvation, how will they cope with the continued brutality? And if they take Salome's chosen path and fight back, how forcefully will the men retaliate to maintain their control? Part of what makes the movie engrossing is that whenever a character makes an argument, it's completely logical, even as it may contradict the previous, equally-logical argument.
The ensemble cast brings weight and urgency to the film's central dilemma. Each actress gives her character a distinct personality type, guaranteeing that watching them bounce off – and occasionally infuriate – each other is always riveting. To the extent that there's a standout, it's unsurprisingly Jessie Buckley, who infuses Mariche with a mixture of resignation and rage. Through her work, you can feel the raw anger that pulses through Mariche, an anger that the women even need to have this discussion in the first place.
It is a bit of a limitation that the characters are all representations of one single personality trait. Given the very short time-span covered by the story, we don't get to see a ton of dimension in them. Polley has also chosen to not have any of the men in the community as major characters, aside from August. They're shown only in brief glimpses, often from far away. I totally understand and respect that artistic choice; nevertheless, for some viewers – and I'm one of them – including a single male to overtly demonstrate the controlling mindset within the community would have kicked the tension up a notch. Other viewers will believe that suggestion to be absurd, and there's a great case to be made on that side, as well. Personal storytelling taste will determine where you land.
Beyond that minor matter, Women Talking is an important, timely movie that asks all the right questions about how we respond to the mistreatment of women in society. Powered by that extraordinary cast, it hooks you on a dramatic level, while simultaneously stimulating you on an intellectual one.
out of four
Women Talking is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images, and some strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.