“When we have liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.”Ona
Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’ novel is a dour but moving experience, its desaturated melancholy swallowed by heavy blacks. Toews described her novel as an “imagined response to real events”, chronicling the women in an isolated rural religious community deciding whether to stay or leave after a series of rapes come to light — for women with no voice, merely making a decision for themselves becomes an act of defiance. Polley’s direction is restrained, not showing the violence but instead alluding to it through repeated recollections of the bloodstained aftermath. Women Talking feels theatrical in both the constraints of its hayloft setting and its near-exclusive reliance on dialogue. Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley and Claire Foy all excel in voicing varied aspects of the group’s response — thoughtful, angry, and fearful of change — though there is a definite artificiality to the debate with actors representing ideas more than fully rounded characters. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s gentle score colours scenes with a simple melody that coils itself around you, squeezing a little too tight. The biggest change in Polley’s script is a perspective shift: the book is narrated by August, a gentle man who attends the discussion to take minutes, and apparently Ben Whishaw recorded substantial voiceover before it was decided that this did not work in a cinematic medium. Instead, the voiceover — more commentary than narration — comes from the youngest of the girls, speaking to a child some time in the future. It further mutes Whishaw’s meek performance (“I want to help and I don’t know how”), but that is appropriate within an intentionally female space. Women Talking perhaps arrives a little too late in the #MeToo era and it asks rather than answers questions, but it is engrossing and thoughtful in its consideration of structural issues and religious belief without judgement.