Next month will see the premiere of She Said, a high-profile movie about the breaking of the Harvey Weinstein story that sparked the 2017 explosion of the Me Too movement, with Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan playing New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. But here at the Toronto International Film Festival, an utterly wrenching drama uses a milieu far from Hollywood or midtown Manhattan to explore the same themes of abuse, patriarchal power, and systemic silencing. Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is adapted from a book by Miriam Toews that was in turn inspired by a 2011 trial in Bolivia. The film takes place in a fictional Mennonite colony where the women have, for years, been drugged and raped in the night, then told the devil was behind the bruises and blood they’d wake up covered in.
The traces of these attacks are glimpsed in quick, horrifying flashbacks, different characters dipping into memories of coming to with blood trickling down their thighs or their teeth knocked out. But it’s not the trauma that Women Talking is focused on so much as how to respond to it. When the film begins, the perpetrators have just been caught and taken to jail in the nearby town, but the rest of the men have gone to bail them out, leaving the women to discuss what happens next. The elders have demanded that, in accordance with their faith, they forgive the culprits and effectively restore the insular community to its status quo. But for the women, the real choices are either to depart from the only place they’re ever known, or to stay and fight to better its dynamics. The bulk of the movie takes place in the hayloft where, after a larger vote, members of three appointed families have gathered to debate and decide which of those actions to take. It’s 9 Angry Women, except grief, despair, and a stubborn hope that a better future is possible come entwined with that anger.
We’re five years past the publication of the Weinstein story, and for a while it seemed like the world might actually crumble down and be rebuilt, though that hasn’t turned out to be the case. It’s far easier to slip back into the way things were than to blaze a new trail forward into the unknown, but Women Talking centers the latter process in a way that is beautiful and revelatory. The ensemble cast includes Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Jessie Buckley, as well as Ben Whishaw as a formerly excommunicated member of the colony who’s returned to serve as a teacher to the school (which accepts only boys); the marvel of Polley’s movie comes from the different perspectives their characters all bring to the ideas of grace, of a parent’s responsibilities, of revenge, and how to process rage. Its remote context doesn’t diminish how universal the question at its core really is, which is whether a society that has enabled great harm to be done to you can be fixed, or must be left. It’s entirely possible the year’s most urgent movie about Me Too takes place in a barn in the countryside.
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