When Claire Foy picked up the script for Women Talking, there was no question about whether or not she wanted to be involved.
“I had never read a script like it. And I found it really moving, intriguing, terrifying. And hopeful, actually,” she tells me. “It wasn’t really a choice. I felt like [there] was just a propulsion towards it.”
Anybody who watches the film will understand why. Based on the original book of the same name by Miriam Toews, who is a former member of the Mennonite community, Women Talking is based on true events: that of a community in Bolivia where sexual abuse of women was found to be horrifically commonplace.
In her novel, Toews gave the women their own ending, devising a scenario where they discuss their situation and whether or not to leave the community for good.
“I had so many questions with regards to the assaults in the Manitoba Colony. Specifically, I wondered what the women would do in response, how they would move forward in their lives, how they would change, how they would keep their faith in the midst of that, and what that conversation would sound like,” she tells me. The resulting 2018 book was a smash hit, so it’s no surprise that when director Sarah Polley picked it up, she immediately knew that she wanted to adapt it.
“I found the conversation that these women had so dynamic, and rich and essential, and complex, and things were being posited that I hadn’t actually considered before, which I think is really unusual,” she says.
“So the idea of getting the best actors I could possibly find in a room to have this conversation made me so excited.”
She did just that, collecting a star-studded cast – including Foy, Jessie Buckley and Rooney Mara – and transforming them into a group of disaffected Mennonite housewives, all of whom have their own reasons for wanting to leave.
Foy’s Salome is a bundle of rage; Buckley’s Mariche is all fear and reluctance and Mara’s Ona is calm and hopeful, despite the fact that she’s carrying her rapist’s child. And as they discuss why they should or shouldn’t fight or leave, the only man in the film – August, played by Ben Whishaw – sits in the corner, diligently taking the minutes of their meeting.
Despite the darkness of the subject matter, the process of making Women Talking appears to have been a joyous one: Polley and Foy are both at pains to say how much they enjoyed working alongside their majority-female cast, while Buckley calls them “inspirational”.
The same went for exploring the complicated emotions of the women on screen and helping them find their voice. “I thought it gave me more energy rather than less. I think suppressing emotion sometimes can be more tiring than expressing it,” Foy says – her character, Salome, starts the film having attacked her daughter’s rapist and is wholly in favour of taking the fight to the rest of the men in their town of Molotschna.
“The more that I did, the more the film went on, the more open I got with it - and [the more] brave and familiar I became taking up that amount of room in that space.”
Buckley agrees. “I love an unpalatable woman – I’ve made a career out of it. And I’m much more interested in those women,” she tells me of her character, Mariche.
Starting out as a furious defender of the status quo, Mariche arguably undergoes the biggest transformation over the course of the film as she slowly lets herself start to believe in a better future – one where her husband Klaus doesn’t beat her.
“It was so electrical to play somebody who was had silenced so much of her own self in service to something that wasn’t hers in the first place,” she says. “It was electrical when she was spouting it out. And actually the spouting turned into something much more profound and bigger and really gave her courage to move and change… I really love her. And I feel really protective of her.”
Given that the film’s plot revolves around women fighting back against systemic abuse, Women Talking seems to have clear links to the #MeToo movement that rocked Hollywood in 2017, following in the footsteps of recent films like She Said.
However, Polley insists that’s not the case. “I think it’s a very timeless story,” she says. “I don’t think it’s just about sexual assault… it also deals with systemic injustice and power structures, and faith and forgiveness and these very, very complex things that affect all of us. Which is also why don’t think it’s a film for just women.”
Similarly, though the film takes part in the ultra-religious Mennonite community – and much of the women’s conversation revolves around whether or not to forgive their abusers, as the church elders have ordered them to – Polley says it’s not anti-religion. “What I think the women are in the process of doing is parsing out their faith, what that means to them, from the structures that have sprung up around their faith,” she says.
“The women and the film is very critical of the power structures [they live in]… but faith itself is actually something they’re trying to move towards.”
Far from being divisive, Polley sees Women Talking as an “epic or fable”, offering a guide of sorts for how to come together and create change through conversation. “There’s something incredibly hopeful to me about democracy in action in a way that I don’t think we see in our society,” she says.
“That is, I think, what we’re getting worse and worse at… we’re sort of all in our corner shouting our narratives at each other and not listening or allowing for nuance at all.”
Perhaps because of this, there’s clearly still work to do when it comes to creating the world that Women Talking strives towards, as Foy makes clear from her experience of how it has been received: in some instances, with scepticism.
“I’ve had my eyes opened in lots of ways with this film. Obviously I’m a woman and I talk and… what I think is really interesting is that some people find that very difficult to hear. I would rather not know that about humanity. But I can’t take away that I know it,” she says.
However, she’s made her peace with it. “I need to know that it exists. And I already knew that it existed because you know, I’ve also had it said to my face in different ways. All women have. But it doesn’t sit well in your stomach when someone says it to your face.”
Despite Polley picking up an Oscar for Best Adapted screenplay last night, eagle-eyed fans may have noticed that the director missed out on securing an Oscar nomination in the male-dominated Best Director category, and when I ask Buckley, she’s upfront about it.
“I’m sad that there’s no women nominated for Best Director,” she says. “You kind of feel like you take one step forward, and ten steps back. I think what Sarah has done with this film… and the nature of this film is much bigger than actually a competition that happens on one day in March.”
With Women Talking now in cinemas, Foy agrees: the film’s value lies in its ability to provoke conversation.
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone who’s come out of it, and just go, ‘It was alright,’” she says. “That film stays with you and lives with you beyond having seen it, and I really do think that it will live on.
“It’s been a moment for something to change somewhere and I think that’s really exciting. But I just want people to see it.”
Women Talking is in cinemas now