Mennonite women sit in a dark barn
Courtesy Michael Gibson / Orion Releasing LLC.

Women Talking asks if you’ll listen. There is, of course, an argument to be made that Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s critically acclaimed novel is meant to be more seen than heard. After all, the material has been taken from the page and repurposed for the screen. And while it’s understood that any great film is an amalgamation of mediums meant to touch more senses than most, there’s also the expectation that it be a feast for the eyes first and foremost. 

The film, however, is highly desaturated. It’s so devoid of color, in fact, that it seems only a step removed from a black-and-white film. That is until viewers are invited into a space even more desaturated, a subdued yet not completely colorless in-between space that exists in flashbacks. And those flashbacks depict the film’s protagonists in an equally in-between space.  

Like the book before it, the film is based loosely on a real-life, ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia where, for years, girls and women were rendered unconscious with animal anesthetic, raped, and then told it was the work of the devil. The flashbacks find some of the women immediately after they come to. They are stunned. Suspended in a split second, they exist neither before nor after the assaults, but rather in the fleeting space after the rape and right before the true realization that something terrible has happened. Something that, even when compared to the rest of the film, is more devastating and draining. But does the color change denote a spectrum and, thus, the possibility of a brighter existence to come? Again, you’ll have to listen, because while this depressed aesthetic choice is fitting given the subject matter, it is perhaps wholly secondary to the women talking. 

The discussions occur in a hayloft over the course of a few days as the women debate whether to do nothing, to stay and fight, or to leave. Among them are two families: the Friesen family and the Loewen family. The former consists of Agata (Judith Ivey), her daughters Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy), and their niece Neitje (Liv McNeil), whose mother committed suicide after the attacks. They are prepared to stay and fight. The latter consists of Greta (Sheila McCarthy), her daughters Mariche (Jessie Buckley) and Mejal (Michelle McLeod), and Mariche’s daughter Autje (Kate Hallett). They are prepared to leave. Absent are the most devout who have already chosen to do nothing, among them Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand). 

Also missing are nearly all the men. Those who have committed the heinous crime at hand were taken into custody, and the remaining men who committed the sinister act of standing by have left to bail them out. Then there’s August Epp (Ben Whishaw), a previously excommunicated community member who has recently returned and is the only man privy to the talking. Unable to read or write, the women recruit August to take the minutes, which Ona has deemed important. There’s that hint again that a different future might exist. A future, perhaps, in which these women continue talking and maybe even add some additional methods of communication to their repertoire. After all, they’re off to a strong start. 

Although almost solely shot in the hayloft, the film never feels limited. Brought to life by the characters’ complex conversations and the actors’ powerhouse performances as they dig into the nuances of each option, the film unfurls into a sprawling parable applicable, of course, to the suffering we all endure in a patriarchal society. While the women ask themselves how as pacifists they will fight or where they will go if they leave, it’s easy for everyone involved in the film, from production to consumption, to begin interrogating their own decisions. 

Women Talking
3.5/4 stars
PG-13, 104 min. Limited theatrical release 12/23, wide theatrical release 1/20/23

How does it sit, for example, that the film was produced by Plan B, a company cofounded and owned by Brad Pitt, who has been accused of domestic violence by his ex-wife Angelina Jolie? In an industry rife with abuse—some of which Polley has written about in her memoir Run Towards the Danger—does this simply remain one of the costs of doing business? It shouldn’t, of course. No one, real or fictional, should have to endure abuse as an avenue to success. Yet, here we all are. 

By the film’s end, the women do decide, led to action by the conversations, which are sometimes soft and understanding and sometimes filled with rage. But what’s evident throughout the shifts in mood, from hopeful to harrowing and back again, is that it’s an engaged exchange in which listening is just as respected as talking. This idea is underscored in the expanse of the film as well by composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Tár, Joker). Working alongside Polley, Guðnadóttir’s music drives the women toward their decision. The next time you find yourself debating a difficult choice, a position the patriarchy seems to perpetually place us in, perhaps ask yourself what it is you’re hearing.