Women Talking: Sarah Polley’s Tale of Sexual Abuse, Religion, Community, and Collective Action

Women Talking: Sarah Polley’s Tale of Sexual Abuse, Religion, Community, and Collective Action

Women Talking, a United Artists film, opens in theaters December 2.

In 2010, a group of women, many of whom disagree on essential things, have a conversation to figure out how they might move forward together to build a better world for themselves and their children.

Women Talking
Women Talking poster.jpeg

Though the backstory behind the events in Women Talking is violent, the film is not. We never see the violence that the women have experienced. We see only short glimpses of the aftermath. Instead, we watch a community of women come together as they must decide, in a very short space of time, what their collective response will be.


The movie is based on the 2018 novel of the same title by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which was inspired by a real event. The novel shed light on a dark, largely unknown chapter of history, based upon real events that happened between 2005 and 2009 in a Bolivian Mennonite community.


After growing up in a Mennonite town in Manitoba, Canada, Miriam Toews left when she was just 18, but her experiences that informed her most formative years would sit with her for a long time and be the catalyst for her seventh and most poignant novel. The book’s launch was met by public and critical acclaim, with many commenting on just how moving and enlightening her read was.


The gathering of the women is predicated on disturbing and terrifying actions within the strict confines of an isolated religious colony. The women’s stories about feeling drugged and waking up bruised and sometimes bleeding were dismissed by the community’s men as fabrications of female imagination or evidence of sinful behavior by the women themselves. But when crimes were revealed, the police were called and arrests made. Under the ticking clock of the men’s return from the city in 24 hours, the women consider and debate a potentially life-changing decision, one that forces each to reconcile self-determination with faith — Do they stay and forgive the men? Do they stay and fight for change? Or do they leave and start a new life?

For her picture, Polley has assembled an impressive ensemble that includes Oscar nominees Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Jessie Buckly (The Lost Daughter), and Emmy Award winner Claire Foy (The Crown).

They play women in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony. Jointly, they hold secret meetings on order to decide how to respond to being drugged and raped by some of the men in their sect. Their daylong deliberations in a hayloft are by turns angry, poignant and even funny.

Despite the setting, the discussions feel as modern and thoughtful as any conversations about sexual violence, sexual harassment, and gender identity that the #MeToo movement has sparked over the past five years.

The three-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (most recently for Nomadland) optioned the book, and produced the film with Dede Gardner, who runs Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B; she also plays a small role.


Polley’s script starts after the community’s men have gone to town to post bail for the accused. While the men are away, over one hundred of the colony’s women have voted on what to do. A tie has resulted between two of the options: stay and fight, or leave the colony. A small group of women have taken on the time-sensitive task of discussing these positions and debating these choices before the men return.


Recalled Polly: “When I read Miriam Toews’ book, it sunk deep into me, raising thoughts about the world I live in that I had never articulated. Questions about forgiveness, faith, systems of power, trauma, healing, culpability, community, and self-determination. It also left me bewilderingly hopeful.


How to Remake a Broken World


“I imagined this film in the realm of a fable. While the story in the film is specific to a small religious community, I felt that it needed a large canvas, an epic scope through which to reflect the enormity and universality of the questions raised in the film. To this end, it felt imperative that the visual language of the film breathe and expand. I wanted to feel in every frame the endless potential and possibility contained in a conversation about how to remake a broken world.”


Published in 2018, Miriam Toews’ novel, Women Talking, was hailed as a Best Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review. “I found it thought provoking in a completely surprising and nuanced way and believed it had value for the conversation I was having with my community,” said McDormand. “I was interested in it being a debate that had a sense of humor and hope and possibility for the future.”


Adds Gardner: “When Fran and I were first talking about who would direct, Sarah was at the very top of our list. I’ve wanted to work with her for a hundred years, but she’s super selective.” Given that author Miriam Toews is from Toronto, as is Polley, there was a potent synergy in the adaptation. “There was a Canadian strain of DNA that felt proper,” Gardner said.


The marriage of the multi-faceted material with a multi-dimensional filmmaker like Polley seemed ideal to McDormand. “Sarah Polley, whose work can speak volumes on its own, is the perfect match as a writer-director for this material,” McDormand said. “She had read the book independently of our sending it to her and was already spinning with the possibilities of it being made into a film.”


Act of Female Imagination


For her part, Toews, who called the book “an act of female imagination,” was thrilled when she heard that Sarah was writing and directing. “I admire everything about her work, her experience, writing, directing, her feminism and activism,” said Toews. “It all comes into play.”


McDormand extolled Polley’s screenplay. “Sarah is a genius and adapted it so beautifully, with great regard for the book and respect for everybody involved. And she made it accessible too and built so much tension into it. She’s a consummate artist.”


The movie departs from the book in several ways, taking a contained story and making it much bigger and more suited to the big screen. And there’s a key change in the narrator. “The book is extraordinary and full of life and humor and wickedness and pithiness,” Polley said. “Yet, two families of women in a hayloft making a decision for the duration is not an obvious idea for a film. At the same time, I could see its cinematic structure. The thing that the book and the movie really share is that despite all the things that they discuss there’s a real sense of movement and a victory at the end of it.”


McDormand agrees: “What surprised me was how epic Sarah saw the film. I imagined it more intimate and perhaps more stylistically rustic, but she understood that to give it its due it had to have an epic grandeur to it.”


Pandemic Impact


As is the case for so many projects lately, the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the process. “We literally thought we’re going to have a farm and everyone can bring their kids and we’ll all live in Airstreams and it will all be shot in a real barn,” said McDormand. “Even without Covid, it became quickly clear that we weren’t going to have that utopian world.”


Yet the project ultimately profited from the pandemic-related postponement. “It had long gestation,” said McDormand. “It went through a process that it would not have gone through before.  By the time the whole company got together physically, the exhilaration of being in a congress of people fed everyone. That made for a bond as a total company.”


Polley agreed: “This was a different kind of prep. Like think tank prep. Because of the year-long delay it gave us so much more time to think about who should be in it, and it felt very luxurious, because you never get that on a movie. It felt very sacred, it was just us with a bit of an unknown on the other end. It meant that the movie got to incubate. I believe that incubation is felt.”


It definitely was felt by the actors involved. “Sarah had such a clear vision of the film that she wanted to make before any of us came in, which is really why we have the film we have— because of the woman she is,” said Jessie Buckley. “She had such foresight and belief and perspective on this film. She brings all her humanity to it and all her political heart. We had a week of rehearsal, but it was during Covid so it was kind of intense, our faces covered with masks. We didn’t see each other’s faces until action was called.”


Matriarchal Production Team


Polley had met with all the key actors virtually before rehearsal. “She met most people online first, and she was able to develop a rapport with them,” said McDormand. “We had a read-through of the script before we gathered in person.” The trio of actors who came from Great Britain–Claire Foy, Jesse Buckley and Ben Whishaw– initially isolated and quarantined together, establishing a particularly close connection.


“The actors had to rehearse fully-masked and they were masked until they shot,” said McDormand. “That was really challenging, and the fact that this company of actors made it as much of an ensemble piece of work is to their credit, and to Sarah’s. Sarah is a leader who’s very articulate and erudite, and she’d given this a lot of thought. So they all trusted each other–even though they could only see half of their faces.”


McDormand refers to the cast and crew as a “matriarchal production team. It’s about the collective. No one started beating their chest too hard. By the time we came together as an ensemble, it was like we’d gone through a kind of boot camp.”


Directed by Sarah Polley
Screenplay by Sarah Polley, based on Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Frances McDormand

Cinematography Luc Montpellier
Edited by Christopher Donaldson, Roslyn Kalloo

Music by Hildur Guðnadóttir

Production companies: Orion Pictures; Plan B; Hear/Say Productions

Distributed by UA Releasing (US); Universal  (International)

Release dates: Sep 2, 2022 (Telluride Fes); Dec 23, 2022 (US)

Running time: 104 minutes