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All appears idyllic in 'Women Talking,' except for what none of the women has said — until now


All it took for the classic jury room drama "12 Angry Men" to grab its audience was spirited debate about a crime. The new film "Women Talking" also has a spirited debate about a crime. And critic Bob Mondello says you wouldn't be wrong if you called it "Eight Angry Women."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Girls in long calico dresses braiding each other's hair amid haystacks, horses clip-clopping down dirt roads. All appears idyllic in this remote religious community, except for what none of the women has said aloud until now.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) When we woke up, feeling hands that were no longer there, the elders told us that it was the work of ghosts or Satan or that we were lying to get attention or that it was an act of wild female imagination.

MONDELLO: They endured years of being drugged, bruised and bloodied, some made pregnant before they caught an attacker.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And then he named the others.

MONDELLO: Men from the colony. And the women's rage knew no bounds. But their options were limited.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Eventually, the attackers were taken to the police in the city for their own protection.

MONDELLO: Their protection.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Almost all of the men of the colony went to the city to post bail for the attackers. We were given two days to forgive the attackers before they returned. If we did not forgive them, we would be ordered to leave the colony and be denied entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.

MONDELLO: At which point the women decide that they must make the next move. And as they gather in the barn, a legend comes on the screen. What follows is an act of female imagination.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Girls in our colony had very little schooling. We hardly knew how to read or to write. But that day, we learned how to vote.

MONDELLO: Three choices - do nothing or stay and fight or leave. The last two tie. So eight women remain in the barn with the colony's male schoolteacher taking notes to determine what all of them will do.


FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Scarface Janz) We will be excommunicated, forced to leave the colony in disgrace if we do not forgive these men. And if we are excommunicated, we forfeit our place in heaven.

MICHELLE MCLEOD: (As Mejal) How could any of you live with the fear of that?

JESSIE BUCKLEY: (As Mariche) How will the Lord, when he arrives, find the women if we aren't in the colony

CLAIRE FOY: (As Salome) Jesus is able to return to life, live for thousands of years and then drop down to Earth from heaven to scoop up his supporters. Surely he'd also be able to locate a few women who left their colony.

MCDORMAND: (As Scarface Janz) Let's stay on track.

FOY: (As Salome) All right. I'll stay on track. I cannot forgive them. I will never forgive them.

MONDELLO: From the furious Jessie Buckley to a sharp-tongued, forgiveness-urging Frances McDormand, the cast is terrific. Filmmaker Sarah Polley has so bleached their world of color that it's almost as if she's shooting in black and white - appropriate for a film where arguments tend to be about moral gray areas, as when Ben Whishaw's deferential schoolteacher is asked to weigh in and declines.


BEN WHISHAW: (As August) It doesn't matter what I think.

ROONEY MARA: (As Ona) Is that true? Do you really think it doesn't matter what you think? How would you feel if in your entire life it never mattered what you thought?

WHISHAW: (As August) I'm not here to think. I'm here to take the minutes of your meeting.

MARA: (As Ona) But if in your entire life, you truly felt it didn't matter what you thought, how would that make you feel?

MONDELLO: His silence says it all, as does his bereft gaze at Rooney Mara's questioner, she unmarried and pregnant from an attack.


MARA: (As Ona) When we've liberated ourselves, we will have to ask ourselves who we are.

MONDELLO: Sunlight streaming through slats in the barn offers no warmth, but these conversations sure do. Some are even funny. That the 2018 novel by Miriam Toews was based on actual incidents in a Mennonite community in Bolivia makes "Women Talking" all the more harrowing. But it doesn't need the help. Anyone clear-eyed about the world today will recognize the truths that these women are talking.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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