Written and directed by Sarah Polley based on the book by Miriam Toews, WOMEN TALKING (2022) is a highly engaging if occasionally stilted encapsulation of violence against women. Consisting almost entirely of a debate in a barn, this microcosm nonetheless provides a roller skate ride through numerous issues and is probably the best explanation of how certain societal faults become institutionalized, making even the perpetrators victims of sorts. I didn’t love it, but I liked it quite a bit.
Miriam Toews’s novel is based on an incident at a Mennonite community in Bolivia, where women and girls aged 5 to 65 would wake up in the morning with blood on the sheets and missing their underwear. The elders got suspicious and caught several men in the act, reporting them to the authorities. The women testified against them in court, and eight men were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Towes, who grew up in a Mennonite community in Canada, wrote her novel as events taking a different turn, which we see in the movie. The men have all left to post bail, and the women have been told that when they return the following day, the perpetrators must be forgiven. The women meet to discuss whether they will stay and accept things as they are, stay and fight, or leave. The novel and movie focuses almost entirely on their meeting in a barn. The stakes couldn’t be higher for them, as if they stay, they and their children may be subjected to further violence, but if they leave, they will face the unknown and possibly be excommunicated and be denied entry to Heaven.
The meeting covers a lot of issues and sees pretty much every type of response spanning the human spectrum of emotion, with the most notable being compassion. What’s particularly interesting is we see things like institutional problems, passed down generation to generation, described in a way that feels grounded and real by way of a stark example. Nor is the story a screed against men. Problems are outlined without generalized judgments, and there is an understanding that things could be better. While the women’s final decision carries a note of triumph, it’s also sad.
Otherwise, some of the interactions and proceedings came across as a little stilted, and the arguments are sometimes poetic if a bit too perfect. These are quibbles on my part, though. Overall, I quite liked it. The story makes you think, doesn’t pander or talk down to you, doesn’t provide pat answers, and invests you in the outcome.