Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Frances McDormand Director: Sarah Polley Screenplay: Sarah Polley Cast: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, August Winter, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, Emily Mitchell and Vivien Endicott-Douglas Distributor: United Artists/Orion
Debate is the essence of Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Miriam Toews’s award-winning 2018 novel, which in turn was based on an actual incident that rocked an isolated Mennonite community, Manitoba Colony, in eastern Bolivia between 2009 and 2011. Seven men were charged with raping numerous women in the group, many of them legally minors, after drugging them, and then ascribing the attacks to delusions or demonic spirits; they were convicted of the crime and sentenced to long prison terms.
Toews transposed the event to a fictional community, and Polley leaves its name and location unspoken. While the film alludes to the sexual violence in flashback, moreover, its focus is on the deliberations among the community’s women while all the men are away for two days seeing to those who have been arrested and detained. Brought up in the belief that disobedience to patriarchal authority means excommunication and damnation, they must decide on one of three options: to stay and accept things as they are, to stay but fight for change, or to leave entirely. Since a vote of all has proven inconclusive, with a tie between the second and third proposals, a small council of three families has been selected to decide the issue.
Most of the conversation is limited to a hayloft where the representatives have assembled to discuss the matter and determine course of action. There are three older woman and their families: Janz (Frances McDormand), whose scarred face indicates abuse, with her daughter Helena (Shayla Brown); Agata (Judith Ivey), with her grown daughters, pregnant Ona (Rooney Mara) and Salome (Claire Foy), who has already shown her independent streak by carrying her ill daughter Miep (Emily Mitchell) to a mobile clinic for treatment; and Greta (Sheila McCarthy), whose older daughter Mariche (Jesse Buckley) has also suffered abuse and whose younger daughter Mejal (Michelle McLeod) suffers from panic attacks. Greta’s granddaughter Nietje (Liv McNeil), whose mother is dead, is the best friend of Marische’s daughter Autje (Kate Hallett). Since Janz argues that no changes should occur and departs the deliberations with Helena, her departure leaves the remaining eight women and girls to decide.
There are two other figures of note. One is the binary Melvin (August Winter), who quietly shuttles back and forth between the representatives and the rest of the community, the other women, girls and boys still on the property; and August Epp (Ben Wishaw), the son of a former member excommunicated for her rebellious thought who was educated on the outside and has returned to serve as a teacher to the boys. He’s been asked to record the deliberations since the women have never been taught to read and write. He’s also clearly devoted to Ona, whom he’s loved since childhood. Autje, however, serves as the film’s narrator, bookending the conversation with future remarks to Ona’s now-born child.
Autje’s narration, accompanied by brief flashes, recount how an attacker was discovered and attacked by Mariche with a scythe before his arrest with the others. Now Mariche expresses fury at the men’s violations, as does Salome, while traumatized Mejal also demands action. Ona, however, calmly suggests using the occasion to envisage the creation of a new order, to which the others respond with amazed antagonism. Like her Greta and Agata also take measured positions, referring to the necessity of faith and forgiveness, though not a forgiveness that absolves the wrongdoers. Questions arise about whether to take the boys with them if they decide to leave, considering how their attitudes might already have been shaped by their fathers. That’s one of few occasions when August is asked his opinion, which Wishaw delivers with the muted grace he exhibits throughout, including in his awkward approaches to Ona.
He’s part of an estimable ensemble, which Polley directs with remarkable sensitivity to the nuances of the various women’s observations, making room for occasional shafts of humor within the overall serious tone (including an explosion of interest when a census-taker shows up, his car blaring a pop song) and not neglecting the religious underpinnings to even the most enraged of the disputants’ outbursts. Everyone contributes splendidly to the group effort, and though Mara, Foy and Buckley will attract the most attention with their very different performances—the last two for their ferocity, the first for her beatific, though hardly reticent, mien—Ivey and McCarthy act as oases of quiet, homespun wisdom and sad regret (McDormand, on the other hand, does little but embody flinty resistance to change), while McLeod offers a poignant portrait of the damage the men’s brutality has caused, and Hallett and McNeil provide a taste of the juvenile rambunctiousness that still prevails amid the disruption.
In fact, when Nietje blurts out “This is very, very boring” at one point, some viewers may be inclined to agree, for despite the efforts of Polley, cinematographer Luc Montpellier and editors Christopher Donaldson and Roslyn Jalloo to keep things from feeling static through cuts and roving camera movement, much of “Working Talking” is just what the title indicates—a lengthy discourse in which points theological, philosophical and sociological are presented by an assembly of remarkably articulate women like paragraphs in a thesis about how to confront patriarchal oppression, something that could work equally as well on stage as on the screen. (One can compare it in that respect to a film like “Twelve Angry Men,” though there Reginald Rose and Sidney Lumet ratcheted up the escalating tension to a far greater degree.) A sense of urgency does arise in the last reel, as the return of one man, reported on rather than shown, requires the women to reach their decisions and implement them quickly, but even here a sense of understatement prevails. The same is true of the film’s visuals—Peter Cosco’s spare production design and Montpellier’s desaturated color palette, which results in images like painterly sketches—and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s morosely moaning score.
Yet while some will criticize Polley’s film as claustrophobic and too dramatically restrained, it uses the situation Toews created to stimulating, thought-provoking effect. And it’s an example of superb ensemble acting.