‘Women Talking’: The Aftermath of Sexual Abuse in a Closed Community

An unlikely group of women hold a meeting to discuss dark issues concerning the patriarchy and make a possible life-altering choice in Sarah Polley’s thought-provoking drama “Women Talking.” The stellar ensemble cast play a divided, multi-generational group of Mennonites who are faced with the choice of leaving their community or staying to fight, following years of systematic sexual abuse. A third option is to stay and continue to submit to their male leaders which, as bleak as that sounds, is preferable to a few of the women, rather than starting over in a strange world, or facing eternal damnation, as the religious indoctrination and teachings inflicted on them by the same leaders who turn a blind eye to rape runs deep. 

“Women Talking” is based on the novel of the same name by Miriam Toews, which itself is inspired by real events that transpired in an ultraconservative Mennonite community in Bolivia over a decade ago. Although most of the story takes place in and around the hay-filled barn in which this meeting of women takes place, harrowing flashbacks show the women and girls waking up after being drugged and raped. To further add to their drama, male leaders have tried to gaslit them into believing a demonic force was behind the attacks.

Polley does an excellent job of showcasing multiple perspectives and exploring the different ways women respond to sexual trauma, spiritual abuse and the like. Claire Foy leads the ensemble cast as Salome, who is in favor of staying and fighting. The elder women include Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand), who exits early, steadfast in her belief that the women should continue to submit to the men. There’s also Salome’s mother Agata (Judith Ivey), as well as Greta (Sheila McCarthy), both wise women who are more flexible in their thinking.

Agata’s other daughter, Ona (Rooney Mara), is more open to leaving, and has an entirely different, more optimistic disposition than her sister. This is probably in part because Salome has a lot of anger in her over her own daughter being raped. Meanwhile, single Ona, who is pregnant from being raped, is more into the idea of starting fresh and raising her unborn child in a different environment. Another powerful voice is Greta’s daughter Mariche (Jessie Buckley). Mariche, who is desperate to leave and escape domestic violence, finds herself butting heads with Salome.

“I think I realized in the very early beginnings of figuring out Salome that her need to stay and fight is very much linked to her need to stay alive,” Foy told Entertainment Voice. “I think what’s happened to her, and what’s happened to her daughter and her sister and her mother and every woman in this community, has meant that she doesn’t really understand how it could happen. God’s abandoned her. Her community no longer makes sense. And I think that the need to stay and fight is very much linked to her need to have justice. There must be a reason, and people must be to blame, and they must be punished for what they’ve done to her child. And if she gives into that, she’s giving in saying it’s okay, basically.”

Mara explained how Polley and the script brought out a different side of her. “I don’t know that it was a conscious choice, the smiling. I’m not a smiler. It’s been actually one of the main threads of my life is, like, people wanting me to smile and me not smiling.  So I don’t know why I was smiling so much. It was not a conscious choice. That’s just kind of what came out of me.”

Ona’s warmness, intelligence and ability to stay positive in the worst circumstances is probably the reason August Epp (Ben Whishaw), a former exile with a university education who came back to teach the boys in the community, has always been in love with her. Whishaw is content here to mostly stay in the background while his female co-stars do their thing, as August is mostly a quiet observer who was invited to the meeting for the purpose of taking notes. Denied access to education, we are told the women in the community are illiterate, although they inexplicably have Bible verses and some facts you’d usually only learn in books and/or school memorized.

“I mean, August is, you know, he’s like our beacon of hope. He’s the kind of man that is possible in the world,” said Kira Guloien, who plays Scarface’s daughter Anna, one of the “do nothing” women who initially does not want the status quo to be disturbed. 

The only other male in “Women Talking” is Melvin (August Winter), a young transman it is revealed through flashbacks was raped and impregnated, possibly by his own brother, and gave birth to a deformed baby that died. Now mute, Melvin prefers to sit out the meeting and look after the young children in the community instead of participating in the meeting. 

Winter explained how Melvin is making his own statement with his silence. “To me this film, among a lot of things, is about choice and decisions. And his decision to remain quiet and to not speak, I think that it’s a really important [choice]… I think that’s a lot of the decisions that these women are trying to come to Is about, how can we live more truthfully and more in line with what we know is true? And so Melvin, although he’s not a part of that discussion, has kind of already made that decision for himself.  And now he’s listening and he’s trying to figure out how he might move forward with this group of women in a new way. And so his silence is very much I think a powerful decision for him.”

An important message in “Women Talking” is how resilient and adaptable women can be, even if they do not believe they are capable of change and growth. This is even true of the older women, and a particularly poignant moment comes when Agata becomes the first adult to address Melvin by his chosen male name.

“She really is the unspoken leader, in a way, of the whole group,” said Ivey. “And I think she makes choices that are a way to lead and say, let’s go this way, let’s try this way.  And she’s watched everybody be extremely brave and courageous at that point, at least that was my little asterisk in my head on my script.  And so she needed to be brave and let go of whatever her concepts were of the choice that Melvin made. So I thought it was sort of the, we’re about to all be brave together and we need Melvin with us, you know, as a collective. I think the forgiveness that women practice in this movie is pretty astounding. I admire it.”

“It’s not pretty, and there’s a lot of conflict, and there’s a lot of difficulty, and there’s a lot of offense taken,” said Polley of the whole ordeal the women go through to find some semblance of peace and a chance to thrive. “But I think that actually is a real kind of utopia. The sense that it encompasses the difficulty of being with people who hurt you and offend you and that you’re not comfortable with, and yet you’re still moving forwards with some kind of momentum toward a common goal.”

Women Talking.” releases Dec. 23 in select theaters, Jan. 20 nationwide.