When a Single Conversation Can Mean Life or Death

Sarah Polley’s new film, Women Talking, is about “ending a world and creating a new one”—all in the space of a single debate.

The ensemble of "Women Talking" gathered in a hayloft looking off-screen in the same direction
Michael Gibson / MGM Studios

In a hayloft overlooking the soy fields, dirt roads, and rustic houses that make up their isolated religious colony, eight women gather for a discussion. The eldest ones lead. The youngest two braid each other’s hair. They talk and talk and talk for hours, trying to reach a decision before the men who hurt them return the next day. Often, the women nitpick one another’s words—why they’re chosen, how they’re used, and what they mean. Is “fleeing” their community the same as “leaving” it? Would forcing themselves to forgive their violators equal true forgiveness?

To some, this may sound like the kind of verbose material more fit for a stage play than a film. But Women Talking, adapted by the writer-director Sarah Polley from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, is vibrant cinema. Polley lends the central conversation a visual gravitas normally reserved for epics: She shot the movie on the widest canvas possible using the same kind of equipment that captured Star Wars landscapes, and applied a muted color grading to every frame. She told me last year that she wanted the ensemble film to look like “a faded postcard,” an artifact suggesting that the women (played by actors including Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Claire Foy) are already abandoning their circumstances. “I didn’t want to shy away from how tremendous the stakes were for them in having this conversation,” Polley said. “They’re literally talking about ending a world and creating a new one.”

Not that Polley ever shows how their world ends or what it becomes. Women Talking is inspired by real-life incidents that occurred in a Mennonite community in Bolivia: The colony’s female members were repeatedly drugged and raped in the middle of the night, then made to believe they had dreamed the attacks. Like the novel, the film begins after the perpetrators have been arrested and the remaining men have left to post bail and retrieve them. But Polley resists the impulse to depict the most obviously dramatic scenes. She doesn’t show, for instance, the men who crash the meeting, or the two boys who threaten to expose the women’s plans. Instead, her film focuses squarely on the women’s discussion over whether they should stay and fight, or pack up and leave the only home they’ve ever known. “I was really curious about making a film in which people have their minds changed,” she told me. “Even when they’re at odds with each other, they’re hearing each other enough that their positions can shift and change and get to a place where they’re all going in the same direction.”

Despite its heavy setup, the film moves with an unexpected buoyancy. For these women, the worst has already happened. Imagining a way forward, through compromise and commitment, is the more intense, and perhaps more exciting, task at hand. Each woman harbors different belief systems and ideas. To come to anything close to an agreement, they must pay attention to one another’s thoughts, absorb contrasting opinions in good faith, and allow space for every observation—even the most tangential monologue about one woman’s beloved horses. And so, they argue. They tease. They cry. They console. They sing.

Every scene, as a result, tracks the discussion’s evolution. Minute shifts in tone and demeanor become monumental. To even embark on this meeting, the movie suggests, is a courageous act. “Black-and-white is a much easier place to live than the middle of a bunch of really messy questions,” Polley said. But that “is sadly where life resides.” Just as a war movie can encourage its audience to appreciate heroism and sacrifice, Women Talking  reminds us of the value of language—its capacity for context, for constructive debate, and, in the end, for collective healing.

In Toews’s novel, a lone man named August attends the meeting. He’s there to transcribe the session—the women are illiterate, having never been allowed an education—but he also serves as a guide for the reader, interpreting the arguments and providing background information. His thoughts aren’t interruptions but essential analyses of each woman’s take.

As she worked on the adaptation’s script, Polley assumed August’s task. She rewrote the screenplay more than a dozen times, poring over it from every character’s perspective at least twice to “titrate each moment so that nobody got lost.” In one pass, for example, she wrote as if the lead character were Ona (played by Mara), the group’s levelheaded peacemaker; in another, she took on the perspective of Mariche (Buckley), the most cynical member. “Even if they’re behaving in ways that are really difficult and obstructionist, I could at least feel it from the inside out of how they were arriving there,” Polley said. “I think it was really important to keep everybody in balance, and that no voice was more important than the other.”

The Herculean exercise paid off: Women Talking feels energizing to watch, because it’s interested in parsing every opinion rather than exhausted by the characters’ thoroughness. Polley, who’s picky about projects—this is the first film she’s directed in a decade—told me that the chance to immerse herself in each character’s mindset helped draw her to the story. Toews’s novel, she explained, examined a reckoning in an unusual way: It moved beyond the immediate, outrage-fueled aftermath and evaluated every argument’s merits and flaws. That’s the opposite of how today’s discourse tends to pan out, especially on social media, where indecision seems intolerable. “To be a fence-sitter is treacherous territory,” Polley said of being online.

In the hayloft, however, that’s not the case. The women’s meeting can be seen as a microcosm of how loud declarations must transform into quieter reflections for the thorniest real-life discussions—such as the ongoing debate over sexual harassment in the workplace—to progress. “At the beginning of the [#MeToo] movement, there were conversations about, like, ‘I just want to ship all of these men who have done these things to an island, and I don’t ever hear from them again,’” Polley explained. “Unfortunately, there is no such island, you know? … I think forgiveness is a very, very complex thing that can be misinterpreted in a thousand ways, [but] I’m really curious about what it looks like to create corridors for people to shift and change and redeem themselves … Yes, we need to tear things down in the process, but hopefully we’re building as much as we want to tear down.”

Looking ahead without forgetting the lessons learned and asking What do we truly want? rather than merely What can we do?—these are the ideas that animated Polley’s treatment of Women Talking. Months into editing, she cut some of her favorite scenes she’s ever shot and replaced the original narration adapted from the book. Instead of having August (Ben Whishaw) as the guide, Polley wrote a fresh passage from the perspective of the hayloft meeting’s youngest member, who, rather than addressing the audience, speaks directly to Ona’s baby, born after the film’s conclusion. The new voice-over suggests that the women did arrive at a better future; at the same time, it treats their summit as a sacred event that needs to be remembered. In other words, Women Talking casts an eye toward the future even as it portrays the past. In a single conversation, time collapses, and what emerges is hope. What could be more epic than that?