The Forward Momentum of Women Talking

Photo: Michael Gibson/Orion Releasing LLC

I once asked a friend if she remembered her leaving moment: those first seconds of physically and finally removing herself from her ex-husband, who had abused her for years. Did she feel triumphant? Terrified? It seemed monumental; surely her memory would have held on to it. She couldn’t recall. Startled, I realized that I couldn’t remember the moment I left my own husband. My marriage at 19 hadn’t been abusive, but the catalyzing events — a pregnancy and miscarriage — had been harrowing in other ways. Now, 14 years later, I realize that I married out of a lack of imagination. After growing up in the church and under the social mores of the Bible Belt, I hadn’t been able to envision a different kind of life for myself.

Sarah Polley captures the magnitude of leaving in her new film, Women Talking, an adaptation of Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel. When I first heard about the project, I didn’t think I could bring myself to watch it, though I read and admired the book. The story is inspired by the real-life women and girls of a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, who for years were drugged and raped by a group of men in their colony and made to believe it was ghosts or Satan who had violated them — or maybe just an act of “wild female imagination.” In 2009, nine men confessed to the rapes after two of them were caught entering someone’s home, and in 2011, seven were sentenced to 25 years in prison. (The eighth was sentenced to 12 years for supplying the anesthetic spray designed for livestock; the ninth escaped.) Officially, 130 women and girls between the ages of 3 and 65 were raped, though the real number is likely higher.

It is a horrific story, and the film arrives at a time, perhaps, when many of us have hit peak “Me Too movie” fatigue. Indeed, the first shot alone — Rooney Mara’s character lying in bed, the sheets yanked down to reveal her bruised legs — had me considering giving up before I even began. But by the end, Polley had delivered me to a new and unexpected emotional state. Women Talking isn’t about suffering at the hands of patriarchy; it’s about envisioning a future beyond patriarchy.

As its title suggests, the film is almost entirely based in conversation. While the men of the colony are away for two days (to bail the rapists out of jail and bring them home), the women must decide between three options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. When the vote is tied, a delegate of women from three families are appointed to make the decision for everyone.

August Epp (Ben Whishaw), the boys’ schoolteacher, records the women’s meetings at the request of Ona (Rooney Mara), a single woman who is several months pregnant by her rapist. Girls are not taught to read or write in the colony, but the women’s illiteracy never renders their conversations any less philosophical, poetic, or fierce.

The film’s prestigious cast (Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley join Mara and Whishaw) is exceedingly capable of carrying these conversations. If you, like me, doubted that a movie based on a book of dialogue — that takes place almost entirely inside a hayloft — wasn’t suited for film, then you, like me, were woefully incorrect.

Of course women’s conversations are riveting; of course these conversations are riveting. To decide whether they should stay and fight or leave their only home, the women must deliberate over God and salvation, over when boys age from defenseless child into potential threat, over how to be a woman, a mother, a wife. Can they forgive the men, and if they can’t, are their souls doomed? Are the attackers also victims of their patriarchal environment, and thus innocent? If they could create their ideal colony, what would it look like? Can they really leave the men and boys when they love so many of the men and boys — their fathers and brothers, their sons? If they leave, where are they going? They’ve never seen a map of the world, or even their region.

The conversations are weighty and tense, often heated, but occasionally dip into levity: when the women dissolve into shared laughter, or the two school-age girls pantomime their boredom or stage a prank. Toews is a master of the tragicomic, and Polley, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly recognizes her genius: I’ve never seen an adaptation that lifts so many lines from the original text.

Still, I nearly left the film merely satisfied, admiring of the performances and cinematography yet less emotionally invested than I’d expected, given the heaviness of the subject matter (which is to say, the heaviness of reality). But then we reach the women’s conclusion, and Polley’s cinematic vision is sublimely revealed. I’m talking, of course, about the leaving moment.

Because Toews’s novel is delivered through August’s perspective, when reading the book, we observe the women leaving from afar: August can’t make out faces from where he stands in the hayloft, but he thinks he sees Ona wave a hand in his direction. In a few sentences, the women are gone.

In Polley’s film, the leaving moment stretches out over the course of 11 minutes. (You could even say it started earlier, but I began my stopwatch with the helpful phrase “We are going to go — now.”) I won’t say much about these minutes, because it’s better experienced than described, but we’re alongside the women this time. We’ve been with them from the start.

This leaving moment feels as fraught and vulnerable as it is. Where will these women and children go, and how can they possibly thrive with their limited resources? Who will they meet on the road, and will those strangers bring deliverance or doom?

Then the camera pans out and we see the entire caravan, how it winds through a bend in the dirt road and keeps on going, and we’re consoled by their numbers. They may be unmoored, but they’re not alone.

Women Talking arrives in a wave of “Me Too films,” She Said and Tár being the latest installments. What feels markedly different about Women Talking is that while its counterparts look back (She Said on Harvey Weinstein, Bombshell on Roger Ailes, The Assistant on toxic, misogynistic work culture in Hollywood), this film looks ahead. It’s neither bent on revenge, as is Promising Young Woman, nor interested in villains, as is Tár. Though occasional shots flash to the horrific attacks, and though many of the women are clearly still traumatized by what they’ve been through, the women of Women Talking are determined to look ahead, not only to the immediate future but farther, both literally and figuratively, down the road. “Did you know that the migration period of some butterflies and dragonflies is so long,” Ona asks, “that it is often only the grandchildren who arrive at the intended destination?”

I may not be able to recall my own leaving moment — for many of us, it’s a series of leavings, a prolonged and agonizing breaking away — but I do remember the precarious, optimistic feeling of leaving one world for another that didn’t quite exist yet. I remember the arduous, exhilarating work of creating a new set of rules and structures to live by, an evolving manifesto that’s shaped by my conversations with other women.

“When we’ve liberated ourselves,” Ona says, “we’ll have to ask who we are.” The Me Too movement amplified our conversations, but it didn’t liberate us. We’ll have to do that work ourselves. With Women Talking, Polley wrenched open something I didn’t even realize was sealed inside of me. For the first time in a long while, I felt the stirrings of forward motion.

The Most Satisfying Me Too Movie Yet