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In 'Women Talking,' survivors must decide: Do nothing, stay and fight, or leave?

Jessie Buckley stars as Mariche in Sarah Polley's adaptation of the 2018 novel <em>Women Talking.</em>
Michael Gibson
Orion Pictures
Jessie Buckley stars as Mariche in Sarah Polley's adaptation of the 2018 novel Women Talking.

Updated December 22, 2022 at 5:05 PM ET

Sarah Polley begins her adaptation of Miriam Toews' 2018 novel Women Talking with girls in long calico dresses braiding each other's hair amid haystacks, horses clip-clopping down dirt roads and children playing.

All appears idyllic in what looks like a timelessly remote religious colony, except for what none of the women has said aloud until a voiceover speaks for them: "When we woke up, feeling hands that were no longer there, the elders told us that it was the work of ghosts, or Satan, or that we were lying to get attention, or that it was an act of wild female imagination."

They had endured years of being bruised and bloodied while drugged, some even left pregnant. When they finally caught an attacker and he named others — all men from the colony — the women's rage knew no bounds, and the abusers were taken off to jail "for their own protection."

The colony's remaining men have now gone to town to bail them out, leaving instructions that the women must forgive their abusers before they return. If they do not, the women are told they will be forced to leave the colony, and be "denied entry to the Kingdom of Heaven."

An act of female imagination

So the women, most of whom cannot read or write, have decided to vote on their options — to do nothing, to stay and fight, or to leave — and as they gather in the barn, a legend comes on the screen: "What follows is an act of female imagination."

The jury-room drama 12 Angry Men long ago established that you could hold a cinema audience rapt with nothing more than spirited debate. Polley aims to do something similar, though with considerably more art and less visual constraint. Call it "Eight Angry Women"? Sure, but it's more than that.

The eight women remain in the barn because two of the three choices — stay and fight, or leave — have deadlocked, and they've been deputized to decide (with the colony's male schoolteacher taking notes) what all of them will do.

From the furiously unforgiving Jessie Buckley, to sharp-tongued traditionalist Frances McDormand, to a pregnant and pensive Rooney Mara, the cast is as terrific as it is outspoken. Ben Whishaw's deferential schoolteacher, who's pined after Mara's character since they were children, makes almost as many points with his silence.

Filmmaker Polley has so bleached their world of color that it's almost as if she's shooting in black and white — appropriate for a film where arguments tend to be about moral grey areas. The sunlight that streams bleakly through slats in the barn, offers no warmth, but the conversations sure do.

That Toews' novel was based on actual incidents in Bolivia, makes Women Talking all the more harrowing, but frankly, it doesn't need the help. Anyone clear-eyed about the world today will recognize the truths that these women are talking.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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