Connect with us
Sarah Polley Women Talking Review


Women Talking | Review

Women Talking | Review

Polley’s Fierce and Tender Adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel is a Stirring Exploration of Faith, Love & Survival

Sarah Polley Women Talking ReviewThere may not be a word in the Mennonite community’s Low German language for rape, but the victims in the rural and cloistered religious colony in Sarah Polley’s fiery and moving Women Talking know exactly what’s been happening to them. Even more horrifying, the culprits are their husbands, brothers, and sons — their family and neighbors. Now the only question is what to do next? Do Nothing. Stay and Fight. Leave. Those are the options on the table, an impossible choice in a tragic situation, in a film that’s both ferocious and tender, exploring how self-defense can also manifest as profound acts of love and devotion.

Ona (Rooney Mara), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), Salome (Claire Foy), Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Agata (Judith Ivey), and Greta (Sheila McCarthy) have been tasked with deciding the future for the women in the colony, and the clock is ticking. The men of the community are in the city, looking to secure bail for those who have been arrested in connection with the rapes. The women have 24 hours before the men return, and the only thing that’s certain is that the life they previously knew — and the horrific assaults — cannot continue as it was. Thus, they gather in a hayloft over the course of a single day to debate a decision that will change everything.

Joining the women is August (Ben Whishaw), excommunicated as a child with his mother who dared to challenge the ruling authority, but allowed by the elders to return and use his training as a schoolteacher to educate the male children of the community. The trust he’s afforded by the women is largely due to the unrequited, ocean deep love he‘s carried since childhood for Ona, who is kind, beautiful, and pregnant with her assailant’s child. The women — who can neither read nor write — have assigned August the task of taking the minutes of their meeting, helping organize their thoughts, and bearing witness. The latter responsibility is shared with Autje (Kate Hallett) and Neitje (Liv McNeil), young daughters of the women, who as they joke and play in the hayloft are also seeing history happen before their eyes.

With time of the essence, the women must grapple with actions that could have eternal consequences, and it makes for a rocky first act. As we get to know the women — from Mariche’s incandescent rage to Salome’s headstrong sangfroid — they wrestle with both pragmatic and existential concerns, turning over choosing between their faith, family, and home or their safety. Of wondering if forgiveness is possible or reasonable, and if God will still allow them to enter the kingdom of heaven. Polley’s script initially struggles to establish its narrative and thematic concerns, with the ensemble feeling more like they’re spitting out bullet points from a beat sheet than enlivening a screenplay.

Looking over the August’s notes that she can’t read, Ona identifies the shapes that form letters, but doesn’t understand what the curved mark is that appears sometimes between them. August explains they are commas — an indication that the reader should pause or take a breath. And when Polley’s film similarly finds its pace, and slows down, the soul of the picture — the heart-shattering relationship between August and Ona — blooms to life. So too does the fuller picture of what’s at stake for the women beyond their safety and agency in the colony. If they choose to leave, they will be stepping into the uncertain world of 2010, putting behind them a community that may be stuck decades in the past but is familiar, pastoral, and truly their own.

This is where the bleached photography by Polley’s regular cinematographer Luc Montpellier (Take This Waltz, Away From Here) becomes a questionable choice. Rendered nearly monochrome, the visuals may succeed in illustrating the lens of despair through which the women now view their community, but it also renders that same community lifeless. It leaves viewers distanced and detached from the houses and fields and forests that the women are struggling to pull away from.

But if the aesthetics are a problem, the performances push right past them. Buckley and Foy are particular standouts, each unflinching, determined, and scared, all flint ready to spark an inferno. However, it’s Mara and Whishaw’s shimmering chemistry, and sensitive, deeply stirring work that stands apart. Their bond — unbreakable but also untenable — plays out on a fragile thread of unspoken acknowledgement between them. Ona knows that August will forever give his heart to her. But Ona’s heart can only belong to all the other women. She is the quiet force they turn to, the calm in an unceasing storm, and Mara carries it wonderfully with a poise that shoulders reason, responsibility, and a profound affection for God and the sisterhood around her.

The imperfections of Women Talking are perhaps also the very thing that makes Polley’s film undeniably honest and rooted in an unwavering emotional realism. There isn’t a bow to be wrapped on this story or neat approach to its telling. The anger and hope and uncertainty of everything these women feel can’t do anything but collide and clash as they grasp for a way forward. In the book by Miriam Toews, upon which the film is based, August writes in his notes that Ona “will be my Polaris, my Crux, my north and south and east and west, my news, my direction, my map and my explosives, my rifle.” So too is she the anchor for everyone she’s leading, bound by love and united by faith, riding forward into the unknown, with a first in the air and thumb aligned to the stars of the Southern Cross guiding their way.

Reviewed on September 13th at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival – Special Presentations. 104 Mins.


Kevin Jagernauth is a Montreal-based film critic and writer. Kevin has written professionally about music and film for over 15 years, most prominently as Managing Editor of The Playlist, where he continues to contribute reviews, and he has recently joined The Film Verdict as a Contributing Critic. Kevin has attended and covered a wide range of festivals including Cannes, TIFF, Fantasia, Savannah, and more. On a consultative basis, Kevin provides script coverage for feature-length independent and international films. He is also the co-founder and co-programmer of Kopfkino, a monthly screening series of cult classics and contemporary favorites that ran from 2017-2020 in Montreal.

Click to comment

More in Reviews


To Top