Sarah Polley’s third feature film as a writer-director, Women Talking is based on an epistolary novel based on true incidents, written by Miriam Toews. The plot revolves around a series of horrific rapes that terrorised the spiritually devout Christian Mennonite colony in Manitoba, Bolivia, between 2005 and 2009. The victims were sprayed with an anesthetic intended to put farm animals to sleep and render them unconscious at night. The women would then be mercilessly raped. The film follows a group of Mennonite women as they discuss how to deal with predatory men in their society.
Women Talking received an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. It exemplifies how expository dialogues can be creatively woven into a narrative without being verbose. The plot-driven beats in each of the scenes are constructed with compassion, humor, and lively discussion, leaving viewers reflecting on the film and its difficult subject long after it ends.
To fully comprehend and analyze the film’s dramatic structure, I’ve divided it into the following:
Act 1: Traumatic Ordeals Revealed
As the film begins, we learn that in 2010, the women and girls of an unnamed, remote Mennonite colony found that their male counterparts were raping and subduing them with agricultural tranquillizers. The attackers are apprehended and brought to prison in a nearby city. The majority of the colony’s males go to the city to bail out the criminals. The valley’s women are left alone for two days to determine how to handle the situation.
In a hayloft, eleven ladies organize a plebiscite to determine whether they should leave the village for good, remain and fight, or forgive the perpetrators and forget their bitter past. As none of the women have been taught to read or write, August Epp, a male school teacher, joins the group to take notes.
Salome (Claire Foy), a fierce community member whose young daughter was also assaulted, is determined to stay and fight the situation. Mariche (Jessie Buckley), a mother in an abusive union, supports her. Ona (Rooney Mara), who was raped and is now pregnant, also suggests that they stay and create new colonial regulations that would give women equal rights. However, Mariche and a few other women believe that forgiveness is the only viable answer. To settle the disagreements, Ona suggests that August (Ben Whishaw) create two documents outlining the benefits and drawbacks of remaining and leaving the community.
The first half of the film introduces us to the causes of community tension and instantly draws the viewer into the narrative. The eleven distressed women choose a hayloft to discuss the burning situation because it gives them a personal space away from the community’s patriarchal society.
Act II: A Collectively Challenging Choice
When the women are counted for the 2010 census, they learn that Klaas (Eli Ham), Mariche‘s abusive husband, will return that evening to collect more money for bail. The meeting resumes. After discussions and arguments, Mejal (Michelle McLeod) and Ona decide to leave. But Salome is adamant about staying back and fighting. She would rather kill the men who are a threat to her daughter. Her mother, Agata (Judith Ivey), and Ona, remind Salome of the core values of their religious faith. Salome gets convinced and changes her mind about staying back. Now, the only remaining unconvinced member is Mariche. An argument ensues between her and the rest of the women. It is revealed that she forgave her husband’s abuse at Greta‘s (Sheila McCarthy ) urging. Greta apologizes to her daughter, and Mariche also decides to leave with the rest of the community’s women.
In the second half of the film, as the women continue to discuss their problems, we learn that the crime against them has gone unreported because they have kept it buried for so long. As a result, the film’s title justifies the importance of such conversations in building trust with other women by confiding in them about things that only they may realize are important.
Act III: Fear and Violence Reduction
August records the women’s reasons for leaving the village on three fronts. First, they must protect their children; second, they must keep their religious commitment; and third, they must exercise their freedom to free thought. They prepare to leave at dawn, keeping Klaas in the dark about their intentions. August professes his love for Ona and gives her a map to help them on their journey. August tells Salome that he plans to commit suicide after all the women have gone. Instead of ending his life, she advises him to educate the boys in the community so that they do not lose their morals like their elders. In significant numbers, the women depart the community in horse-drawn carriages.
The women fleeing the community in the concluding sections do not represent defeat. The community in which they have been living has devolved into a toxic den. Years of abuse have made such an indelible imprint on their psyche that they find it difficult to forgive the perpetrators. So they should leave the village to begin afresh.
Furthermore, by the end of the film, August‘s character acquires significance. His appearance in the film serves as a beacon of hope for the community.
Not all men are evil, and a handful of them have the power to change an abusive society for the better through education. As a result, his presence at the women’s meeting serves as a sort of guiding and encouraging force for the bruised souls.
Overall, the film’s script is compellingly strong and dramatically engaging. The film is vibrant with fascinating dialogue and stunning character interactions, detracting from their camaraderie and relationship-building. As a result, it also serves as a platform for the actors to provide emotional depth to the characters.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.