Movie review: ‘Women Talking’ a powerful, moving tribute to quiet strength | lifestyle

Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel “Women Talking” was inspired by a horrifying true story: In a remote Mennonite colony in Bolivia, many girls and women were repeatedly and violently raped by men in the community who used an animal anesthetic to do so. the victims unconscious as they slept in their beds.

The attacks, Toews wrote in the introduction to her book, had been attributed to “spirits and demons” for years; women were accused of lying to get attention or letting their imaginations run wild. Described by its author as “both a fictional response to these real events and an act of the female imagination”, Toews’ novel did not depict the violence, but the subsequent meeting of the women while the men went into town as they debated what to do with what had happened .

Written for the screen and directed by Sarah Polley, Women Talking is exactly what its title tells us. Polley does open up the action a bit, but it’s still primarily a long conversation set in a barn, in which some women argue for leaving and finding a new life somewhere else (they have to leave, one says simply, because “we can’t stay”), others for staying and struggle, another for staying and forgiving.

Raised to be illiterate and docile, these women aren’t used to thinking about what they want, and “Women Talking” simply lets us watch them puzzle over how to proceed. It’s a small group, just representatives from three families from a large community, with only one man present: gentle August (Ben Whishaw), a schoolteacher who’s there to take the minutes because women can’t do it.

On its surface, “Women Talking” doesn’t feel particularly cinematic, but Polley and the cast make it mesmerizing, drawing us into the lives of these women, moment by quiet moment. It’s shot in faded, slightly grayish colors, as if it’s been left out in the rain, with cinematographer Luc Montpellier finding beautiful afternoon light in the barn and surrounding fields.

The look of the film is serenely charming, in contrast to the horrors the women talk about – or rather, not. In fact, there is little talk about the actual attacks, but a lot of discussion about forgiveness, about the logistics of leaving, about what to do with the emotions they feel. You are amazed at how these women laugh together, how safe they feel with the men away, within the community they have created.

Polley gives us time to get to know these women, to sort out relationships and alliances. Vivid characters emerge: Claire Foy’s fiery Salome, sure she can never forgive the violence done to her young daughter; She with the soft voice of Rooney Mara, glowing like a ghost in the gloom; Mariche Jessie Buckley, a battered woman who practically vibrates with rage; Frances McDormand’s silent elder statesman Scarface Janz, whose set jaw suggests she knows a lot more than she’s letting on.

They talk, we listen. “Women Talking” is a powerful, moving tribute to quiet strength—and, unexpectedly, hope.

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