Sarah Polley’s first film in a decade is an adaptation of Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, Women Talking, which is itself a loose reimagination of the Manitoba Colony, a Mennonite community into the eastern lowlands of Bolivia, where over 100 women were drugged and raped by a group of male elders between 2005 and 2009. Polley, like Toews, eschews mere didacticism or docudrama, resituating the action to a similar “colony” in 2010 Canada, and invoking the mythic spirit of Exodus and classical drama to capture a similar group of women at the very cusp of coming to terms with their trauma. The film announces itself, but also the decisions of the women involved, as an “act of female imagination” and is almost entirely driven by women, via an ensemble cast headed by Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand and Claire Foy, who offer different but equally compelling arguments for how to move ahead.
Virtually the entire film takes place in a hay loft, where the women of this colony congregate to discuss the three options remaining to them: prevent their menfolk returning, forgive them and allow them to return, or to depart the colony themselves, in the twenty-four hour window before the men, all of whom appear to have been complicit in some way, return from a nearby town where they have held by local constabulary. This discussion takes place over an afternoon, a night, and a morning, and exudes an enigmatic ritualistic quality, partly because these women are all trying to recalibrate ritual, or devise new rituals, in the face of the most unthinkable trauma. These conversations often feel like the last rites on the night before a major battle, which in turn makes the hay loft, the town, and the fields around them, all feel curiously provisional and hypothetical. The women haven’t ever been permitted to see maps, neither of their local region or the world as a whole, so their sense of space is not quite realised. In fact, the story never quite feels realised as a film either, but this works poetically to capture characters coming to terms with trauma that has not been fully realised, and can perhaps never be realised, since they were unconscious when it was done to them.
In other words, Women Talking captues the colony at the peak of their disorientation, caught in a strange twilight space where they haven’t even processed or streamlined their memories, which emerge randomly and anarchically as traumatic bursts of body horror. The real terror of the situation, as they put it, is the lacuna in discourse, the “gaping silence” that means they don’t even have an adequate vocabulary to describe what has taken place: “Where I come from, where your mother comes from, we didn’t talk about our bodies, so when something like this happened, there was no language for it.” While Women Talking may possess the talkiness of theatre, it’s offset by the almost occult power that speech takes on as the characters try to inhabit it for the first time without the strictures of their menfolk. Every utterance is an attempt to reframe testimony, and to form a new way of speaking collectively.
Of course, part of what the women are experiencing is the disorientation of their colony without men – a supremely uncanny prospect in what Polley presents as a kind of imaginary core of patriarchy. This is the first night they have ever spent without men, so what’s at stake is whether they can bear to spend another night this way, since all of their husbands and fathers will be out on bail by the following afternoon. If they don’t forgive their husbands, they will be barred from the kingdom of heaven, and yet remaining seems impossible, and somewhat incompatible with their religion as well. What ensues feels like a fragment of colonial folklore (we see nothing in the film to indicate that it is 2010) but also a different kind of post-colonial vision: that of white women escaping from what Sandy O’Sullivan has described as the colonial project of gender. It’s notable that the only two men who take part in this discussion are an outcast of the colony, played by openly gay actor Ben Whishaw, and a young trans man, who only now feels capable of being himself. Otherwise, we never see men in the present, apart from the bruises, scars and traumas they leave on women’s bodies.
In keeping with this uncanny colonial optic, Polley shoots the film in the dim hues of nineteeth-century photography, darkening it further with each approaching hour, so that when dawn rises it feels as if we have sunken even further into the murky gloom. Neither the women nor the film ever quite shake off the heavy nights of the unconscious when they were assaulted, even if they do provisionally manage to take back the night, or remake it on their own terms, once they finally decide to leave the colony. In the darkest part of the night, Ona, Rooney’s character, and August, Whishaw’s character, light up an abandoned rooftop with a torch, which they use to illuminate the first map that Ona has ever seen. Lest this reiterate masculine power too emphatically, however, August explains how to use the Southern Cross for nocturnal navigation, only for Ona to wryly point out she has been gazing at the stars for years, as beacons of light in the midst of the darkness that coats the film. When the women finally leave, they ask August to give them luck by writing down a list of things that they can give thanks for, and the stars and sun are at the top of the list, emblems of a brighter future.
Nevertheless, Polley doesn’t visualise this future, except as a collective act of imagination that brings the film full circle with its opening titles. By removing the experiences of these women from the specificities of the Manitoba Colony, Polley evokes a futurity that is at once more open and more elusive than anything that might happen in real time or space. At moments, her approach reminded me of what Paul Schrader has described as the transcendent cinema of Bresson and Dreyer – cinematic theodicies, meditations on the mysteries of faith and the otherness of God. When the women make the decision to leave, they describe it as a “supreme act of faith, a step towards love and forgiveness,” but whether this faith is rewarded, and love follows, is left unresolved, in another elliptical addition to Polley’s oeuvre.