WOMEN TALKING is a compassionate, reasoned film about a very ugly subject that tells its compelling story within strict confinements. The action takes place among an Amish-like sect in 2010 as its women take on issues of the patriarchy with a fiercely clear eye and the safe remove of an almost metaphorical setting. Within this society, women can neither read nor right, but by the end of the film, they will have found their voice.
The triggering issue is a series of rapes that have occurred within the colony. Told that the bruising and bleeding they experience upon waking has been the result of Satan and his minions, the women have acquiesced until a culprit is caught in the act. He names others, and they are taken to the secular authorities for their own safety after one of the women attacks him with a scythe. When all the men leave to arrange bail for the suspects, they tell their womenfolk, traumatized and some pregnant by their rapes, that they have two days to forgive their attackers or be banished from the colony and of any hope of heaven. The women decide to vote on the matter (not pray), and when the result is a tie between staying and fighting or of leaving, three families, from grandmothers to children, are chosen to make the decision for all the women. The resulting discussion, which is the bulk of the film, combines sophisticated dialectics along with the raw pain these women have suffered for generations. As they debate what is best for them and their children, they slowly come to embrace their power individually and collectively with wariness, delight, and a whiff of inevitability.
Central to the story is the concept of forgiveness and the pacifism demanded by their strict religious code. Taking the minutes for the group, as a testament to the colony, is August (Ben Whishaw), recently returned from the banishment inflicted on him and his mother when she dared to ask questions. Not about God, but about the order of things in which the men in charge enforce the patriarchy with a benevolent ruthlessness. His presence, a reminder of both their oppressors and of what happens to rebels, provides a running benchmark of how far the women are straying from their culture. That he is also in love with one of the victims, the single and pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara), makes for a sweet poignance to the story even is it serves to remind everyone that not all men are evil, nor are they all-powerful in the face of repression disguised as piety.
The dynamics between the women becomes the emotional equivalent of an action film. Instead of literal explosions, there are the revelations of abuse, and the fears of what the impulse for revenge, so long repressed, might compel these essentially peaceful women to do when pushed too far. And it is a showcase for stunning performances. Claire Foy in particular as Salome, a mother already on the road to outright rebellion, takes us with her on each step of a jarring, disorienting journey from which she will not be able to return. When, towards the end she picks up a hatchet in order to defend herself if need be, it is a quiet moment on screen, but the cry of the Valkyries emotionally for the audience.
WOMEN TALKING never feel confined by its hayloft location, and it’s not because of the flashbacks that take the action into the outer world. Instead, it is writer/director Sarah Polley honing in on the treacherous emotional journey these women are taking that makes each segment of their journey from submissive chattel who would not dare to ask their men to pass them the salt, to fully realized human beings embracing an uncertain future with neither rancor nor the need for revenge, an epiphany.