‘For a lot of people, this is their reality': Claire Foy on thoughtful drama Women Talking

Undated film still handout from Women Talking. Pictured: (L-R) Director Sarah Polley and Claire Foy on set. See PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Women Talking. Picture credit should read: PA Photo ©2022 Orion Releasing LLC. All Rights Reserved. WARNING: This picture must only be used to accompany PA Feature SHOWBIZ Film Women Talking.
Rachael Davis, PA Entertainment Features Writer

Set in an isolated colony of Mennonite Christians, Women Talking – directed by Sarah Polley and based on the 2018 novel of the same name by Mennonite-raised Miriam Toews – tells a story that has roots in real-life horror and explores an imagined retaliation against gender-based violence.

In the opening scenes of the film, which is in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars, it's revealed that the women and girls of the religious colony have been violently raped in their sleep at the hands of colony men over an extended period of time, having been knocked out with animal anaesthetic – a concept based on real life events that happened at the Manitoba Colony, a remote Mennonite community in Bolivia.

These attacks have been explained away by the community's elders as fabrications of female imagination, or evidence of sinful behaviour by the women and children themselves.

When we meet them in the film, the women of the colony have decided that something must be done to end the horrors they continue to experience. They have only 48 hours – with the men away to post bail for the rapists – to decide what they will do: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave.

After a vote amongst the community, ‘do nothing' is ruled out, but the other two options are tied. Thus a group of eight women, hailing from two families, must debate the colony's final decision, resulting in a theological and philosophical conversation where the religious women must consider their fate in the next life, as well as this one.

Amongst these women are Ona, played by Rooney Mara, Salome, played by Claire Foy, and Mariche, played by Jessie Buckley. Tasked with the job of minute-taking, keeping record of the conversation for the world to discover, is August Epp, the colony's boys' school teacher – girls remain uneducated and cannot read or write – played by Ben Whishaw.

The specifics of the violence the women have experienced are never explicitly shown: they are discussed, and we see haunting clips of bruised thighs and bloody bed sheets, but the narrative focuses on the discussion held in the aftermath.

“I think that this film really doesn't dwell in the realm of the horror of what's happened to these women, it really takes on what a way forward might look like and how they're building together as a community, and sitting with each other's experiences and trying to build a new world,” says Polley, 44.

“And so, to me, it felt like besides the point to see the details of the horror that they've experienced.”

What struck Polley when she read Toews' book was the timelessness of the story, how it felt pertinent not only now, in the climate that we live in, but at any moment in society's history.

“The book by Miriam Toews, when I read it, felt very timeless and really essential, sadly, at any moment in history,” says the director and screenwriter, who has been nominated for an Oscar for the Women Talking screenplay.

“I think there has been a lot of conversation over the last few years, more so, about gender-based violence. And those have been really important conversations, and a lot of that has been about identifying harm.

“I think what I was so excited about was the opportunity to tell this story, which was about a way forward and about what we want to build, not just what we want to destroy.”

The film's stars found the characters deeply relatable, despite the surface-level differences between the lifestyle of the Mennonites and their own more secular living.

“There was not a single woman in that room who I didn't have some sort of weird affinity with, in the sense that I understood all those women, I appreciated them and I knew them in my life – like, I'd seen them, I'd had conversations with them and knew them,” says Claire Foy, 38, who plays hot-headed Salome, who wants to stay and fight.

“I don't think they're that different from our lives, you know – they probably have a more concentrated relationship to faith or a particular kind of relationship to God, but I mean we all live with some sort of faith, in whatever that form takes in our lives,” adds Jessie Buckley, 33, who plays Mariche, who fears that if the women stay and fight, they could lose and be forced to forgive.

“I know all of those women. Everything that each woman says in that room, I've definitely thought at certain points in my life.”

Ben Whishaw's August Epp is the only man we meet in the film. He is a gentle, thoughtful man, and as such is entrusted to bear witness to the meeting and record the discussion.

“It was an interesting exercise, in the best sense, of something not being about me,” says This Is Going To Hurt star Whishaw, 42.

“It's not about him. He's just there to listen – he understands how complex it is for him simply to even be in that room. So it's not about him, it's a sort of self-effacing quality that he has to have just to do something really simple, that's also really difficult, which is just to listen and to record.”

As Polley says, while Women Talking tells the story of a remote, devoutly religious community, the central discussion of a reaction to abuse enabled by a patriarchal society is a sadly universally relatable one.

“I think that (for) a lot of people who move through the world, not just women, this is their reality,” The Crown's Foy continues.

“I think the more we address that, the less we keep that some sort of fringe aspect of society, the more healthy society hopefully will be.

“I think that the most common experiences and things that people go through in their lives are what these women are experiencing – it's just, it's been put out there, and they're talking about it.”

“I related a lot to them,” Olivier Award winner Buckley agrees.

“They didn't feel foreign – what felt foreign was that this story was actually being told, and what was so exciting about it was actually being able to talk these things out loud for the first time, when actually we've had them all privately in our minds, and even communally.

“You never have an opportunity to have a conversation like this with a group of women and to actually take agency in deciding our fates and our faith and what actually we hope for in our lives together, outside of the helm of being in a patriarchal society.”

Women Talking is released in select cinemas on Friday February 10, and across the UK from Friday February 17.