Women Talking: Sarah Polley’s Adaptation of Miriam Toews’s Novel, with All-Star Ensemble, Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand

The director’s feature centers on matters of justice, faith and awakening among women whose lives have been constricted by religious tradition.


(l-r.) Michelle McLeod stars as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata in director Sarah Polley’s film
But words can be action — and for people who have been denied a voice, they can be essential.
The thoughtful and beautifully lensed feature is a rewarding exploration that addresses the characters’ predicament and the existential questions that face contemporary women navigating patriarchal setups.

Toews’ 2019 novel was inspired by horrific events in Bolivia’s Mennonite community, where women were drugged and raped while they slept by men in their colony. The book revolved around the women’s deliberations, in a hayloft, after they learned the truth about their assaults.

Their discussion was filtered through the voice of the man they trusted. He was schoolteacher August, enlisted to take the minutes of their meetings because none of them knew how to read or write.

In Polley’s interpretation, August, played by Ben Whishaw, is a moving character, but it’s the women’s voices who drive the story, brought to life by a strong ensemble of newcomers and established talents.

With all the men away, either in jail or taking care of bail for those who are, the colony is transformed–The women are on their own.

Soon beliefs and temperaments clash among the eight people, representing the three generations who gather in the hayloft.

The youngest, Autje (Kate Hallett), delivers the voiceover narration, indicating a future beyond this flash point. Autje and best friend, the slightly older Neitje (Liv McNeil), braid each other’s hair, goof around and occasionally interjecting a word or two of snark and insight.

The thoughtful beatific Ona (Rooney Mara), who’s pregnant as the result of assault, envisions a society where women are educated and participate in community-shaping decisions; she beams with equanimity and idealism.

Autje’s mother Mariche (Jessie Buckley) lashes out at nearly everyone with a fierce belligerence and unspoken vulnerability.

Salome (Claire Foy), who has shown courage to defy the men by seeking medical treatment for her ailing daughter outside the colony, expresses less conflicted rage than Mariche’s.

The two oldest women in the group, Agata and Greta, are figures of wisdom played tby Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy, respectively.
As for the boys, Polley asks us to consider how innocent children grow up to be the kind of men who hold women back and brutalize them.

Her screenplay gives each of the main characters a monologue.

Frances McDormand, who’s also a producer, is onscreen briefly as a woman who can’t imagine leaving the community, though there are knife-blade scars on her cheek.

The way women’s acceptance of abuse is passed from one generation to the next is addressed elsewhere in the story.

It’s Whishaw’s August, with lifelong love for Ono requited in friendship but not romance, who’s the film’s emotional figure. A former member of the colony whose family was banished because his mother “questioned things” about the patriarchal restrictions, he’s wracked with dejection that he can barely finish a sentence.

The story’s most fascinating aspect is seeing these women away from marriage and domestic chores. Once they assemble in that hayloft, they’re focused on questions of self-determination and self-liberation, and they ask one another essential questions.

What matters more than who wants to stay or to leave is the way the women’s interactions change each one of them, and the ways they find harmony, joining voices in renditions of traditional hymns.

Montpellier’s camera follows the colony’s girls as they romp through fields with lyrical childish abandon. He captures the women’s inner light, and he and Polley frame the women’s interactions with striking formal compositions. The world beyond them, viewed from the hayloft doorway, is impressionist blur.

Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: United Artists Releasing/Orion Pictures
Production companies: Hear/Say Productions, Plan B
Cast: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, August Winter, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, Vivien Endicott-Douglas
Director-screenwriter: Sarah Polley
Based on the novel by Miriam Toews
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Frances McDormand
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Lyn Lucibello Brancatella, Emily Jade Foley
Director of photography: Luc Montpellier
Production designer: Peter Cosco
Costume designer: Quita Alfred
Editors: Christopher Donaldson, Roslyn Kalloo
Music: Hildur Guðnadóttir
Casting directors: John Buchan, Jason Knight
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 44 minutes