The Lessons of “Women Talking”


The lessons of Women Talking.


A woman wakes with blood between her legs. Other women she knows have done so, too. The elders of the isolated religious colony in which they live say they’ve been attacked by demons as punishment for their sins. Others say the women made it up. They deny until a man is caught and names his co-conspirators. The rapists—husbands, sons, brothers—are arrested and taken to a nearby city for their own protection. The rest of the men have gone to the city to post their bail. They will return in two days.

The women have been asked to forgive the men in order to ensure their place in the kingdom of heaven. If they don’t, they must leave the colony. The women have narrowed their options to three: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Because they are illiterate, their options are listed on a large sheet of paper; the women mark their votes with an X. “Do nothing” is swiftly eliminated, and to decide between fighting or leaving, a smaller group of women—a committee of eight—agrees to meet in a hayloft to hash out a plan before the men return.

So begins Women Talking, written and directed by Sarah Polley and adapted from the 2019 novel by Miriam Toews. Though the book is narrated by a schoolteacher named August Epps, who has been asked to record the meeting’s deliberations by the illiterate women, in the film August (played by Ben Whishaw) has a smaller role. The movie’s spare narration is instead given over to 16-year-old Autje (Kate Hallett), one of the youngest attendees of the hayloft meeting. The film is shaped by the violence that has inspired the women to action, but it’s also full of light. There are moments of ordinary joy and play: The women burst into laughter when they encounter both humor and awkwardness amid their conversational tangents; Autje and her friend Nietje (Liv McNeil) play austere clapping games, their heads close together, chuckling to themselves as sunlight pours into the barn. What Women Talking demonstrates is that despite astonishing violence, trauma doesn’t always debilitate; it can spur us to action, our wit and sensitivity intact. It demonstrates, too, that we are capable of changing our minds.

Much of Women Talking takes place in the hayloft, tracking the twists and turns of the women’s debate. Three voices rise to the surface in particular, those of Salome (Claire Foy), Mariche (Jessie Buckley), and Ona (Rooney Mara). The three offer contrasting points of view, three ways of reacting to the violence that has occurred: One argues for revenge, another for maintaining the status quo, and the last for a complicated kind of forgiveness. What unites these viewpoints is a set of difficult questions: How do we leave the people we love? What if the people we love are also the people we fear? Is it possible to rehabilitate those who have hurt us?

Some of the women cannot forgive. Salome is the group’s resident firebrand, who attacked the men with a scythe when she learned that her 4-year-old daughter, Miep, had been assaulted. Though her faith is just as strong as that of the other women, Salome finds forgiveness impossible. If their God is omnipotent, she asks, why did He not protect the colony’s women? “I will become a murderer if I stay,” she declares. Yet Salome’s fury is understandable, and it provides the vehicle by which the other women can articulate their own doubts. And so the women decide to leave, for even if the world outside the colony is unknown, to stay means inviting certain violence—either upon them, or begot from them.

Of the women, Mariche is the lone dissenter. Hunched over, chin in hand, eyes burning, she speaks with a concentrated bitterness. Mariche, a cynic, finds the prospect of leaving foolish. She cannot imagine a life without her family and away from the men, who are the keepers of money, literacy, and freedom. Mariche draws the ire of both her peers and the viewer—she shoots down ideas, snaps at August’s attempts to guide the meeting, and seems to be the only obstacle in the women’s path to leaving, while providing no real alternatives. For her obstinacy, Mariche is relentlessly dogged by the other women, who point out that she does nothing when her husband beats her and her children and that her son will grow up to do the same if she doesn’t interfere.

At times, however, one wonders if Mariche might not be unwilling to act so much as she is trapped. Mariche believes she has no support to do differently; up until the meeting, even her own mother asked her to forgive her abusive husband. In fact, Mariche can only leave once she has the full support of her community, support that isn’t offered until the women are all aligned in their decision to leave the colony. Though these women are victims of the patriarchy, they are also its abettors, able to escape only if, as a collective, they choose to leave its structure altogether.

Women Talking understands that the patriarchy reproduces itself intergenerationally: Men and boys learn from their elders—in the colony’s case, religious leaders—while women and girls internalize and enforce the patriarchy too. Children are visually present in the film in a way they can’t be in the book: In interludes, the camera pans over children playing, walking, running, shouting, and sleeping, emphasizing the ever-present need for caretaking—women’s work—as well as the suggestion of future generations who will inherit the lessons passed down.

In the novel, Toews changed the name of the colony to distance her book from the news story that inspired it but kept the details relatively specific: The colony is called Molotschna; its members speak Plautdietsch, the dialect of the Mennonites; it is located in South America (the men are said to know English and a little Spanish). This specificity extends to the various members of the colony itself: In the novel, Peters, the bishop of Molotschna and one of its elders, serves as the villain. The power structure is clear: religious leaders, then men, then women at the bottom, below even teenage boys. However, the movie further abstracts Toews’s text. The colony is not named; it’s just “the colony.” The women speak unaccented English; they are styled in a nostalgic way (dark, floral fabrics and silken plaits) reminiscent of colonial puritanism. No elders are referred to by name; the only on-screen antagonist is Klaus, Mariche’s abusive husband, who appears only in passing. In the universal, nonspecific setting of the film, the villain is a more universal evil: the abuses of men.

The deep isolation of the women, paired with the indeterminacy of the film’s setting, has the effect of making the movie feel so timeless and hermetic as to be a fable or parable. Perhaps the colony is intended to be vague: These could be any women, anywhere, at any time. But that ambiguity simply reinforces the image that womanhood, as an archetype, is exclusively the province of white women. If the ambiguity serves a purpose, it is to make their journey feel utopic: For these women, and these women only, leaving the colony is a metonym for leaving the patriarchy behind. They leave one vacuum for another. In the new world they enter, which may not bear a similarity to our own, they may find a home where they can thrive. Or so we hope.

Ona, Salome’s older sister, unmarried and pregnant as a result of the attacks, serves as the moral compass of the film and offers an answer to the question of forgiveness. Beatific, sometimes to the point of provocation, Ona is a thoughtful dissenter, and Mara plays her with a dreamy air, her brow smooth, her cheeks often marked by the dimples of a not-quite-warranted smile. It is Ona who suggests the women should create a manifesto for the new colony they hope to build, a list of demands: to ensure the safety of their children, to maintain their faith, and to think. It is Ona, too, who makes a statement so radical in its generosity that it is incredible it appeared in an American film. When Mariche asks if Ona hates her unborn child, Ona answers, “I already love this child more than anything. He or she is as innocent and lovable as the sun.” Then, astonishingly: “And so, too, was the child’s father when he was born.”

Ona’s belief in the innate purity and lovability of all people cuts to the core of the film’s humanistic vision. In Ona’s view, there’s no such thing as a good man or a bad one; no one is born evil, and children are not guilty of their parents’ transgressions. Even the men who allowed the attacks are victims of the system that created them. It is Ona’s faith in humanity that enables her to forgive, and it is the women’s faith in humanity that allows them to consider the possibility of forgiveness. But it is only when they leave that they will be able to do so.

Women Talking isn’t about justice as much as it is about moving forward. “Always moving, never fighting,” Ona says. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgiving immediately, nor does it mean remaining in the situation that caused harm. The women consider the education of the boys of the colony, wondering how old is too old to unlearn what’s passed down, but they aren’t concerned with rehabilitation. They are concerned with getting ready to leave, with keeping their plans a secret, with finding a new life. They put reins on the horses, pack up the chickens into crates, roll up the woven rugs, and hide away the harvest.

Where do the women think they’re going? What do they think they’ll find? Perhaps it’s possible, in the world the film has made, that what they depart for isn’t the world we know, but a better one, one created according to the contract Ona describes. They depart on a high, hopeful note, but it’s up to us to envision their journey’s next turn. The only certainty we have is that each of them will have the support and care of the rest: No one woman could have left alone.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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