TEXAS, USA — Ten years after traversing the spectrum of family narrative in her documentary “Stories We Tell,” actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley has returned with a feature that could be called “Stories Left to Be Told.”
The actual name of Polley’s movie – a drama lighter than its subject matter would suggest and more stringent than it probably intends – is “Women Talking,” and that they certainly do. They talk of reckonings and ultimatums. They talk of options and alternatives. They talk of divine dreams and horrible realities. They talk of hope and uncertainty; whisper of accountability and inevitability. Sometimes they interrogate, lash out or laugh, and each time it reveals the humanity that Polley’s screenplay sometimes forsakes when placing the weight of her words above the characters speaking them.
These women also talk practically, which can be astounding given the reason we’re seeing them talking at all. They’ve gathered in a secluded barn at the edge of their Mennonite colony, out of sight of the men who have recently assaulted them. For details go to Miriam Toew’s source material of the same name, a 2018 book inspired by real-world events in Bolivia that provides specifics where Polley chooses to remain mostly ambiguous.
Not that the movie’s thorny foundations don’t sting. What’s foregrounded here is how systemically Polley's ensemble of protagonists have been preyed upon, to the point that they're now debating whether to stay and fight back or leave and forge a future of their own making.
An obvious decision? To you, perhaps. For the women of this religiously devout colony, where signs of modernity have been drained along with any color that might hint at where it’s to be found on a map, it means conversations about safety are also implicitly ones about identity—any consideration of leaving must take into account that exodus could mean casting themselves from heaven before they ever have a chance to arrive there.
In favor of taking that chance is Rooney Mara’s eloquent Ona, who philosophizes in hushed, confident tones that faith in oneself is as important as faith in God. Claire Foy’s Salome and Jessie Buckley’s Mariche brush against that notion, though to different levels of ferocity. Their own mothers, Agata (Judith Ivey) and Greta (Sheila McCarthy), have for decades had their agency stripped away while tradition entrenches itself. But when the elders lead the group in hymn, it’s as much a measure of comfort between victims united as a sign of the faith which has placed them at an inferior position in societal isolation. For all these women know, there’s no precedent for the actions they’re considering, no contemporary standard by which to square their piety with the cruelty they’ve faced.
Polley relegates the actual crimes to brief but shocking flashbacks of their immediate aftermath, a decision that anchors the film’s cataclysmic weight while also resurfacing the story’s horror at a tempo that suggests the women would rather be anywhere else than the position they’re in now: Talking about faith and freedom, and whether it’s at all possible to retain both at once. It’s startling to witness these nuanced conversations about religion at a time when faith and filmmaking have overlapped at a point of financial lucre but bland oversimplification, and equally impossible not to wonder what those movies’ fervent audiences would make of a film whose editing is imbued with the kind of cinematic grace they think they’re receiving.
As “Stories We Tell” taught and this movie’s exemplary ensemble shows, Polley’s got an eye for pinpointing deeper layers of consequence. Though her movie reveals its most involving self at a point when it’s almost too late for its power to fully take effect, it’s the undergirding of cataclysmic stakes that tinges the poetry of “Women Talking” with genuine potency. Therein lies the movie’s true ambitions: Amid a sparse setting and borderline theatrical staging, the spiritual spaces these women are talking in are just as credible as what they’re talking about. It’s one thing to share a past experience, but Polley shows it’s another thing entirely to consider a future these women have no glimpse of.
That gives “Women Talking” a cosmic quality of sorts, and lends a slippery quality to the proceedings that could be unfolding in real time or across many meetings. In this barnhouse, the boundaries of age or experience that might separate its occupants outside collapse, and the editing of Christopher Donaldson and Roslyn Kalloo help the movie glide dreamily along as if suspended by time but still anchored by circumstance. By a certain point it’s suddenly difficult to recall whether the younger girls on the periphery always seemed so connected to the conversations, whether Agata and Greta’s steadfast faith always felt so ready to be challenged.
That applies as much to the characters as the actors playing them. I won’t do any ranking of their chances for winning Oscar gold, but it’s no coincidence that the mood of the film and its performers are almost always in sync. Buckley admonishes the debate’s direction, and we lean in; Foy vows retribution against the men who wronged her, and you sense the lit match of her principles nearing the tinderbox. And on the handful of occasions that we glimpse Frances McDormand – playing, in a near-wordless but intense performance, a colony matriarch scrutinizing the women from afar – “Women Talking’s” pivotal dialogue pauses as we remember the conflict of Polley’s film isn’t a binary one, even as its core group of women contemplate whether the wider world is ready to accept that for itself.
"Women Talking" is rated PG-13 for mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images, and some strong language. It's now out in San Antonio-area theaters. Runtime: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Starring Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand
Written and directed by Sarah Polley, adapted from the book by Miriam Toews