'Women Talking' review: Balancing survival and spirituality after sexual assault Eight women come together in a hayloft to decide what's next after their religious colony is devastated by sexual violence. Sarah Polley adapted Miriam Toews' novel, which was drawn from true events.

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'Women Talking' explores survival, solidarity and spirituality after sexual assault

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SAM BRIGER, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Several years ago, the Canadian actor Sarah Polley shifted into feature filmmaking with movies including "Away From Her" and the personal documentary "Stories We Tell." Her latest film, "Women Talking," is an adaptation of Miriam Toews' 2018 novel about a Mennonite colony devastated by sexual violence. Our film critic Justin Chang says that the movie, now playing in theaters, boasts one of the year's strongest ensembles, featuring actors including Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Jessie Buckley. Here's his review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Miriam Toews' novel "Women Talking" is drawn from events that came to light in a Bolivian Mennonite colony in 2009, when a group of men were charged with raping more than 100 girls and women in their community. Over a period of a few years, the perpetrators immobilized their victims with cattle tranquilizer before assaulting them in their beds. For a long time, community leaders attributed these mysterious attacks to the work of evil spirits. Both the novel and now Sarah Polley's superbly acted movie adaptation scrupulously avoid showing the attacks themselves. They're less interested in dwelling on the horror of what the men have done than in asking what the women will do in response.

As the movie opens, the accused men have been jailed in a nearby town, and the other men in the community, complicit in spirit if not in action, have gone to bail them out, leaving the women behind. The movie makes no mention of setting, as if to suggest that this story, filmed with English-speaking actors, could be taking place anywhere. So there's a sense of obstruction built in from the outset, something that Polley emphasizes by shooting in a nearly monochrome palette - not quite black and white, not quite sepia-toned. Most of the movie takes place in the hayloft of a barn where eight women have gathered. They've been chosen to decide what course of action they and the other women in the colony will take. Some of the women, like those played by Jessie Buckley and a briefly seen Frances McDormand, believe they should ultimately forgive the men in keeping with their strict Christian values. Others, like those played by Claire Foy and Michelle McLeod, insist on fighting their attackers, to the death if necessary. Sheila McCarthy and Judith Ivey are especially good as the group's elders, who try to keep the peace. As the arguments become more and more heated.

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MICHELLE MCLEOD: (As Mejal) I want to stay and fight.

JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Mariche) But won't we lose the fight to the men and be forced to forgive them anyway?

CLAIRE FOY: (As Salome) I want to stay and fight, too.

BUCKLEY: (As Mariche) No one is surprised that you do. All you do is fight. Is this really how we are to decide the fates of all the women in this colony, just another vote where we put an X next to our position? I thought we were here to do more than that.

FOY: (As Salome) You mean talk more about forgiving the men and doing nothing?

BUCKLEY: (As Mariche) Everything else is insane, but none of you will listen to reason.

FOY: (As Salome) Well, why are you here with us? Why are you still here with us if that is what you believe? Just leave with the rest of the do-nothing women.

SHEILA MCCARTHY: (As Greta) She is my daughter. And I want her here with us.

ROONEY MARA: (As Ona) Is forgiveness that's forced upon us true forgiveness?

FOY: (As Salome) Keep nonsense like that to yourself, please.

CHANG: "Women Talking" might feel stagey at times, but it never feels static. The discussions here are mesmerizing, especially since Polley has shot and edited them to feel as dynamic and propulsive as possible. At times, I wanted the movie to be even talkier. While the book's dialogue has been understandably truncated, sometimes the conversations feel a little too engineered for rhetorical flow. But none of that diminishes the gravity of the drama or the impact of the performances, especially from Rooney Mara as Ona, who emerges as the most thoughtful member of the group.

Ona has as much reason as anyone to want revenge. She's pregnant from one of her attacks. But instead, she proposes a radical third option. What if the women leave the colony and the men behind and begin a new life somewhere else? As it unfolds, the movie etches a portrait of women who, even apart from the assaults, have only ever known lives of oppression. None of them were ever taught to read or write. And so the task of taking the minutes of their meeting falls to a sympathetic schoolteacher named August, the movie's only significant male character, sensitively played by Ben Whishaw.

August is in love with Ona and wants to look after her and her unborn child. But she gently refuses. Whatever the women are going to do, they have to do it together and on their own. As the idea of leaving gains momentum, the debate keeps intensifying. How will they survive in the outside world? Should they bring their young sons with them? Will the departure keep them from fulfilling their duty to forgive the men? Or is it only by leaving that they can even consider forgiveness?

There's obvious contemporary resonance to a story about holding male abusers accountable. Though, it would be reductive to describe "Women Talking" as a Mennonite #MeToo drama, as some have. What distinguishes this survival story from so many others is that even as it acknowledges the abusive, patriarchal power structure in this religious colony, it still takes seriously the question of spiritual belief. It's the women's faith in God that ultimately empowers them to imagine a better, fairer way of life. You may disagree with that conclusion. And I suspect that on some level, Sarah Polley wants you to. "Women Talking" comes to a deeply moving resolution. But it also knows that the conversation is just getting started.

BRIGER: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new film "Women Talking." On Monday's show, the true story of hundreds of workers recruited from India to work on Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, who found themselves trapped in squalid work camps with no prospect of the green cards they were promised. Labor organizer Saket Soni chronicles the human trafficking case in his book "The Great Escape." I hope you can join us.

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BRIGER: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Sam Briger.

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