While watching Sarah Polley’s Oscar-nominated “Women Talking” based on the novel by former Mennonite Miriam Toews, there is an unexpected intimacy that accompanies the viewing experience despite the large cast and even larger crew working behind the scenes.  As a small group of women gathers clandestinely in a barn to discuss their options — do nothing, stay and fight, leave — after being repeatedly drugged and raped in the middle of the night by men of their religious sect, the viewer is placed in the room quietly listening as the women decide their future.  Polley and the A-list cast do a remarkable job of keeping the audience engaged.

Based on a true incident that happened in a conservative Bolivian Mennonite community, the story takes place in 2010, but judging by the lack of modern amenities and clothing it could very well be 1910.  Time is of the essence as these women have less than 48 hours to decide their fate, the amount of time it will take for their assailants to return to the colony after being bailed out by the group’s Elders. 

The key to deciding is to get everyone on the same page.  Elder Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand) is in the minority, “We will be forced to leave the colonies if we do not forgive these men,” she wants to stay and if that happens fiery, young Salome (Claire Foy) is ready to fight, “We know that we’ve not imagined these attacks” she states and then reminds the group, “We know that we are bruised and terrified” but the voice of reason resides in Ona (Rooney Mara), pregnant from being raped, who speaks in a soft, calming tone, “Hope for the unknown is good” she comments before adding, “It is better than hatred of the familiar.”  Ona is ready to leave the colony and many of the women are behind her.

The all-star cast includes Jessie Buckley as Mariche, who’s also ready to fight back against the men.  She’s been abused by them in the past, but her mother Greta (Sheila McCarthy) did nothing to stop it and now since it’s happened to so many of the Mennonite women, she feels sorry for not believing her daughter. 

Ben Whishaw is the only significant male in the cast.  He plays August, a good guy on the side of the women.  He’s well educated after leaving the sect to attend college which may explain why the Elders ex-communicated him from the colony.  He vows to help the women carry out whatever they decide.  He’s also in love with Ono and vows to raise her child as if it was his own.

It’s been 10 years since Sarah Polley’s last film, the documentary “Stories We Tell” about her family’s history.  “Women Talking” marks a triumphant return for the actor-turned-director earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and the film receiving a Best Picture nod.     

I spoke with Sheila McCarthy who plays Elder Greta about the film, working again with Sarah Polley, and her hopes for the takeaway viewers will get from watching “Women Talking.”

Hi Sheila. Let’s begin with this amazing cast. What was it like working with all these talented actors?

When I found out who was in the cast, I was like “Shut up, what?!”  On the very first day of shooting, there’s the queen Claire Foy washing my feet! I had to get over that feeling really fast because we were together all the time. I was beyond excited to work with this incredible caliber of people. It was an honor and I felt lucky. 

For such a large cast, the viewing experience is very intimate.  Were there any moments of intimacy while shooting the film with so many actors and behind-the-scenes personnel on set? 

Intimacy is a beautiful word.  We were together all day long, every day, which never happens.  Usually, you drop in for a day or two to shoot your scenes, and most of the time you’re in your trailer, or you’re off for three weeks and then you come back in and try and find your comfort zone.  We were together all day, every day for months.  We were also off-stage in one holding area together.  That made for an incredible experience.  Sarah Polley set the bar very high. There was a strong tone of collaboration, warmth, humor, fun, and safety.  We were dealing with pretty intense subjects.  None of us will ever have an experience like this again. 

I once visited a friend who lived in Lancaster, PA.  There was a large Mennonite community in the area so you would see horses and carriages traveling down the road quite often.  Did you do any research about the Mennonites prior to shooting the film?

The film is based on Miriam Toews’s novel which was inspired by a true story that took place in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia.  Well, I was in Bolivia about 20 years ago with Canadian Feed the Children as an ambassador, and I remember seeing this colony from Manitoba on the side of the road selling their wares.  They looked pale, almost like ghosts compared to the people of Bolivia who wore colorful clothing.  I have a very clear memory of buying bread from them.  I also lived in Canada for many years in Stratford, Ontario which is surrounded by Mennonite communities.  I had a Mennonite nanny so I’m very familiar with them.  I did research on the Bolivian order the film is based on, and I read the Vice articles.  There is also a YouTube video of the actual story.

It’s weird that you encountered the Mennonite sect many years before doing this film.  It’s almost like a premonition.

Isn’t that bizarre? It’s funny, my daughter came with me on this trip, and she said “Mom don’t you remember the Mennonites?”  They were at the airport, and I totally remembered them.  They were such a contrast, and so quiet.  That would have been 20 years ago.

Since pre-production began during the onset of the pandemic you went from Zoom reads to masked rehearsals.  When it came down to shooting the film, did the impact of seeing the actors’ faces for the first time, help establish a level of authenticity?

That’s very interesting.  A great question. I suppose it did without me knowing it.  We never did see the crew’s faces and I never saw Sarah’s face so yes, absolutely.  It kind of aided and abetted our Mennonite world too, so I think I was subconsciously using that.

In many ways, “Women Talking” resembles a horror film.  It’s truly horrific what happens to the women in the colony and more frightening that it’s based on a true story.  Did the film’s subject matter affect you, the cast members, or the crew?  If so, how did you or they deal with it?

Great question.  I wasn’t personally triggered but I suppose you could say I was triggered by the times somebody had a moment in the crew and the cast.  We would just stop filming and we would surround them the way Mennonite women would do with comfort and safety. Sarah created such an incredibly safe and warm environment that you don’t always get on film sets.  That helped enormously.  We also had a grief counselor at our beck and call if we needed them.  There were two young girls in our movie, it was their first experience on a set, we were very cognizant of taking care of them, but I think they took care of us just as much.  Also, there was a lot of joy on the set too.  We laughed a lot and that’s important when shooting something harrowing.  We also had a lot of support from the crew and not just women. In fact, I remember a man being triggered one day when I was doing an apology scene to my daughter in the film.  I said “I’m sorry” to her but once was not enough according to the man so I had to say it several more times in the scene.  Sarah turned to him, and asked “Is that enough?” and he said, “It’s enough now.” Everyone has a story.

For director Sarah Polley, this is her first feature in over a decade.  I understand she worked individually with each actor on their character.  What was your relationship with Sarah like? 

We worked together individually and as families to lay the groundwork for the shooting of the film.  We had a two-week rehearsal period which is luxurious in movie making.  I also had the advantage of knowing Sarah.  We both live in Toronto, and I’ve played her mother in a film, so our paths had crossed many times before. We had a relationship before the film, but I’ve never worked with her as a director. She was a serious little girl.  When we shot a movie together, she was 11, and I remember I killed a bug one day on lunch and she said “You should never ever do that Sarah” [laughs] She was really something even then.  She’s an incredible actress, so coming from that world into directing meant that she understood what an actor goes through.  

For such an intense film there is an incredible amount of restraint on display by these characters. Working within the parameters of the screenplay, was that restraint in place, and was there any room for adlibbing?

Not for a second. I think the only thing I adlibbed was the scene where I apologized to my daughter played by Jesse Buckley.  I just kept talking and Sarah kept it in the movie. Everything else was scripted and she was very adamant about that, and we were very respectful of that.  In the early days of rehearsal, we realized the film had a lot of talking.  But when the talking gets to a boiling point Sarah so wisely breaks the tension with scenes of children in the fields, or men’s boots on the ground, and the score.  I think that she really chopped into it so beautifully so it’s not just two hours of talking. 

I’m also glad that Ben made it out unscathed.

Yes, I always thought that Ben would eventually join us.  He’ll come and join the women down the road, wherever we end up. That’s part of the fable, isn’t it? Where will they go?  It doesn’t matter, they just know they can’t stay.

The film may be polarizing, hitting members of the audience differently.  What is the one message that you would like the audience to walk away with?

I just love the idea that these women are telling their stories for the very first time in order to move forward.  I think the one message I would like the audience to take with them is to tell their story to one other because that provokes change and hope.

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.