Powerful, thoughtful, play-like drama about surviving rape.
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that Women Talking is writer-director Sarah Polley's intense adaptation of Miriam Toews' novel. The story follows a group of devout Mennonite women who must decide what to do after men in their isolated community are found to have drugged (with a powerful cow tranquilizer) and sexually assaulted girls and women for years. The actual assaults aren't shown, but some of the violent consequences are, including bloody sheets, bruised and bloody thighs, teeth that fall out, a young girl who needs medication, and a miscarriage. One of the women smokes cigarettes on camera, and a man is known to get drunk and beat his wife/children (off camera), but otherwise no substances are used or discussed. The religious women only curse a few times, and their use of "f--k" is presented in a comedic way, since they don't really know how to swear. "S--t" is also said, as are insults like "whore," "spinster," "lunatic," and more. Due to the insular nature of the community in which the movie is set, the cast isn't diverse. But it is notable that the movie focuses on women, both in front of and behind the camera. The cast includes Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, and Judith Ivey, and themes involve communication, courage, empathy, and more.
The purpose of debate
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What's the Story?
Loosely based on true events in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, WOMEN TALKING opens with a narrator explaining that, in an insular religious community, women and girls of all ages would wake up to bloody physical evidence of sexual violence, but the men refused to validate their concerns. When an assailant is ultimately caught, he names his fellow perpetrators, and the guilty men are eventually taken into the nearest town to face local authorities. The rest of the men follow, in the spirit of forgiveness, to pay the accused men's bail, while the women are instructed to forgive the men, too, or face excommunication -- not to mention eternal damnation. While the men are away, the women must decide whether to do nothing (forgive), stay and fight, or leave, despite the severe consequences. When they vote and are evenly split between staying and fighting and leaving, members of select families are appointed to debate and decide on behalf of all the women and girls. While one older woman and her daughters abandon the debate in favor of total forgiveness, matriarchs Agata Friesen (Judith Ivey) and Greta Loewen (Sheila McCarthy) and their daughters and granddaughters stay to figure out what to do. Ona Friesen (Rooney Mara), who's single and pregnant from rape, asks her childhood friend/the community schoolteacher, August (Ben Whishaw), who was recently reinstated from ex-communication, to take the minutes at the meeting, since they don't know how to read or write.
Is It Any Good?
Writer-director Polley's faithful, moving adaptation is a brilliantly performed tribute to the power of free will, debate, and justice in the face of oppression and violence. The action mostly takes place in a hayloft, where the Loewen and Friesen women (including two teens) discuss everything from doctrinal teachings to orienteering (most have never been beyond their colony) to the brutal facts surrounding the attacks against them. All of the actors provide a master class in range of expression and layered performance. Salome (Claire Foy) is a protective hothead, Ona is a curious dreamer, grandmother Agata is a gentle peacekeeper, Greta is a level-headed horse-lover, Mariche is an angry pragmatist, and teen best friends Autje (Kate Hallett) and Nietje (Liv McNeil) would rather be anywhere else. Whishaw is equally fantastic as the village black sheep who has lived out in the world but returned -- mostly for Ona. In the absence of much action, the actors must keep the momentum with their dialogue, and all of them are vibrantly up to the task.
With its mostly one-room setting, the story feels very much like a play, with each actor able to shine with monologues and interesting points throughout the meeting. Mara and Jessie Buckley have earned award nominations, but the two older actors, Ivey and McCarthy, are also riveting, as is the melancholic and ultimately hopeful score from Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. Luc Montpellier's cinematography beautifully depicts the contradiction between the dark, intense dialogue scenes inside the barn and the expansive landscape scenes outside during moments of respite in the debate, particularly as the children of the colony play in sun-dappled fields. The art direction also supports the remoteness of the colony, where time seems to have stopped in an earlier century. This is a movie where the title says it all: It's a story of women talking about important themes, the meaning of life, and the ephemeral nature of safety and security. While it's obviously not a fun movie, Polley has done a remarkable job of infusing this serious film with moments of levity, humor, and joy.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the violence in Women Talking. What's the difference in the impact of violence that's directly shown vs. violence that's discussed or alluded to?
Talk about how the title describes the movie. What do the women discuss? Why are those topics important? Which character strengths do they demonstrate?
How does the movie deal with grief, trauma, and sexual violence? What role does faith play in those aspects of the story?
For those who've read or are familiar with the book, what are some differences that worked well for the adaptation? What, if anything, is missing that you wish had been included?
- In theaters: December 23, 2022
- On DVD or streaming: February 21, 2023
- Cast: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley
- Director: Sarah Polley
- Studio: United Artists Releasing
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Book Characters, Brothers and Sisters, Horses and Farm Animals
- Character Strengths: Communication, Courage, Empathy, Perseverance, Teamwork
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: mature thematic content including sexual assault, bloody images, and some strong language
- Award: Academy Award
- Last updated: March 13, 2023
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