‘Women Talking’ Is A Faithful Adaptation Of Miriam Toews’ Book – Film Review


Sarah Polley, who has previously given us thoughtful and introspective gems with the likes of Take This Waltz starring Michelle Williams and her biographical documentary Stories We Tell that beautifully inspects her own familial life, has returned to the screen with her eagerly anticipated adaptation of Miriam Toews’ book, Women Talking

Toews’ book, released in 2019, is an imagined response to the very real events that took place between 2005 and 2009 in a remote and isolated Mennonite colony in America. What occurred between this period was the rape and assault of over a hundred women and girls by the hands of the men in the colony, the youngest victim being only 4 years old. The men would feed an animal anaesthetic through their windows in the middle of the night to ensure they would not wake whilst they were raped and assaulted. The women and girls would wake up knowing something terrible had occurred but not knowing exactly what had happened to them. Their accounts were dismissed as the ‘wild female imagination’ and were told that it was the devil punishing them, until one night one of the men is caught in the act. Miriam Toews creates a fictional dialogue between the women of the colony about what has occurred, and like the book, much of the film is set entirely in a barn where the women have gathered to discuss whether they should do nothing, stay and fight, or flee. As the women cannot read or write they are accompanied by the only man they trust, August Epp (Ben Whishaw), who is taking minutes of the meeting. 

Sarah Polley’s Women Talking has both its strengths and weaknesses. The film finds its strengths in its characterisations and dialogue, the majority of which is directly transcribed from the book, bringing to light Miriam Towes’ profound and beautiful sentiments on women empowerment, pain, strength and forgiveness. We as viewers, like August, are simply witnesses to what the women have to say as they grapple with their emotions which ranges from anger and despair to acceptance and humour which the women cling on to. We hear the women speak of the micro society that they have been living in that has gone terribly wrong, the inequality and mistreatment they have experienced, how they are viewed and considered within the commune, and the realisation that the way they have been treated has reduced them to less than the animals they care for. The women grapple with their choices, between doing nothing, leaving the only place they have ever known and entering the world outside of their commune or staying in a place where all trust and safety has ceased to exist, and whether they have a choice in the matter at all. The film successfully presents these conflicting and agonising emotions that the women are battling, with each of its characters. Jessie Buckley who plays Mariche revels in her anger that is projected at not only the men but towards the women of the community and what has been allowed to fester for countless of years, which is juxtaposed by Rooney Mara’s Oona. Mara is undoubtedly the film’s strongest asset, who entirely encapsulates the character of Oona who, although has found herself pregnant after what has occurred, has protected her soft and inquisitive nature and joy for life, which Mara so beautifully portrays. Especially in her love for August which although unspoken, we occasionally see glimmers of in Mara’s gaze and smile. It is Oona who dares bring up the topic of forgiveness and the discussion and debate surrounding forgiveness between the women is especially pertinent. 

However, there are weaknesses within the film that lets the story down. Whilst Ben Whishaw fits the role of August in almost every aspect with his gentle awkwardness and soft nature, it is unfortunately not only his but also the accents of some of the other actors, namely Claire Foy, that lets the film down and becomes entirely distracting to the point that any sense of realism or emotion is lost. In her book, Toews creates an authentic sense of realism which is completely lacking in the film creating a wide disparity between the emotion that is felt when reading the book versus watching the film. The film’s script and aesthetics presents itself in the form of a play making it almost theatrical, emphasising the contrived nature of Toews’ book but loses itself in its battle for realism. If the actors were allowed to keep their natural accents and voices, it would have perhaps allowed the actors to revel in their emotion and performances. If the book sets out to be an imagined response to the very real event that takes place, then Sarah Polley misses out on the opportunity to take this imagined reality even further with her adaptation to the screen, but Polley still manages to shed a much-needed light on the extremely timely and powerful words of Miriam Toews which will resonate with many, all over the world.

Women Talking is out in select cinemas now

by Elise Hassan

Elise Hassan (She/Her) is a writer, programmer and curator. She recently set up her own local community cinema called Haringey’s Global Cinema Club which has been screening some of the best non-English cinema from around the world. Elise is very passionate about shining a light on under-represented world cinema, whether that be writing about them or screening them! Her favourite films of all time are Mustang and Spirited Away.

1 reply »

  1. The trailer looks great, when Foy speaks in it I find no problem with her accent, there is no what she could have not had an American accent for this…. I’ll watch the film and see how it works for me!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.