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3 February 2023

In Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, sexual assault survivors refuse silence

In this Mennonite #MeToo drama, the victims of male violence must choose between faith and their desire for justice.

By Ryan Gilbey

It is an exaggeration to say that the number of serene former child stars could be counted on the fingers of Mickey Mouse’s hands. But only just. Sarah Polley, now 44, became a prolific screen actor in her native Canada at the age of five. In young adulthood, she was an enigmatic presence who had lent her natural, unbending intelligence to the films of Kathryn Bigelow, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Michael Winterbottom by the time she was 20.

Polley, who hasn’t acted since 2010, is a film-maker herself now. Her fourth feature, Women Talking, has been nominated for several Oscars including Best Adapted Screenplay – just like her 2006 debut, the Alzheimer’s drama Away from Her, based on a story by Alice Munro. Last year, she also published a collection of personal essays, Run Towards the Danger: Confrontations with a Body of Memory, which included the revelation that she was assaulted during sex when she was 16 but shrugged off (even laughed off) the trauma. Only now has she begun to reckon with the harm done to her, both on set and off, during those years without agency.

This is pertinent to Women Talking, which she has adapted from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, itself based loosely on events that occurred in 2009. Women and girls in a Mennonite community were being attacked at night, anaesthetised with a bovine tranquiliser before being assaulted in their beds. The rapists’ identities were a mystery until one was caught, which led to all eight ending up in police custody. As the film begins, the remaining men in the community are trekking into town to post bail for them. They will return in 48 hours, which is how long the victims, including Ona (Rooney Mara), her sister Salome (Claire Foy) and Mariche (Jessie Buckley), have been given to forgive their attackers. Should they demur, they are told they will be barred from heaven. But as Ona says: “Surely there must be something worth living for in this life, not only the next.”

This has the makings of a waiting-game Western such as High Noon or Rio Bravo, as well as hints of Unforgiven, which also began with an act of sexual violence against women (though in that case men were hired by the injured party to exact vengeance). Whatever course of action is taken in Polley’s film – and the choices boil down to “do nothing”, “stay and fight”, or “leave” – it will be the women who do it. Men figured in Toews’s novel but only two are seen on screen, including the schoolteacher August (Ben Whishaw), who is assigned to take the minutes when the women convene in a hayloft to debate their next move. His role in the book as narrator has been passed to Mariche’s teenage daughter, Autje (Kate Hallett); a dominant male voice here could only have been jarring.

Audiences have encountered the Mennonite lifestyle on screen before in Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light, but Polley and her cinematographer Luc Montpellier resist the kind of visual rapture found in that transcendent 2007 film. Their palette is drained and bloodless. Close-ups of vexed faces predominate. Mara’s sly smile, her dimples as big as a baby’s footprints, can alter the whole tenor of a scene. Buckley, ferocious, is prone to disarming laughter. Sheila McCarthy, the Canadian actor who in 1987 played the “organisationally impaired” misfit hero of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, carries decades of wisdom in her sorrowful eyes as Greta, who periodically taps her dentures on a wooden box – an unusual habit with gruesome origins.

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The challenge for Polley and Montpellier is to bring a static debate to dramatic life. Visual accents are provided by the light peeking through the slats of the barn to form a lattice of scars and slashes like the gouges in a woodcut. The hayloft’s opening is often in frame: a bright square of featureless sky representing the future. The women don’t know what that future will look like – they talk of education for girls, a religion born out of love, but they will have to invent all this for themselves. “None of us have asked the men for anything,” says Greta. “Not even for the salt to be passed.”

As the title suggests, the women’s words and emotions are unobstructed. The score by Hildur Guonadóttir includes layered clangs and chimes that sound at times like malfunctioning yet melodic plumbing, and at others like a swelling call to arms urging the women on. In the aftermath of horror, Guonadóttir opts for the sound of a bell struck with a stick. Time, gentlemen, please.

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“Women Talking” is in cinemas from 10 February

[See also: Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a major and personal work]

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This article appears in the 08 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Silent Sunak